On and off the ice, the Cariboo Cougars will be a new-look outfit this season. The club's ultimate goal, however, remains the same -- to qualify for the Telus Cup national championship tournament.
The Cougars, the northernmost team in the B.C. Hockey Major Midget League, held their main training camp at CN Centre this past weekend. Forty-five players started camp and, by Sunday, 28 remained. Of those 28, only a handful played a full slate of games for the Cats last season. Those individuals include goaltender Jeremy Matte, defencemen Scott Cullen and Bryan Allbee and forwards Donovan Law and Lien Miller-Jeannotte. Defenceman Jordan Low, who jumped up to the Cougars from the midget Tier 1 ranks part way through last season, is also in the mix, as is forward Riley Pettitt. He earned a spot on the 2012-13 Cariboo club but missed 23 games with shoulder and knee injuries.
But, the majority of the players still vying for positions on the 20-man roster this season are newcomers to the major midget level and that means the learning curve will be steep. Despite that fact, expectations will be high.
"We're always a top-notch team in the league -- we build the best hockey players," said Trevor Sprague, last season's head coach and now the team's general manager. "Every year we want to go to the Telus Cup and this year's going to be no different."
The 2014 Telus Cup is April 21-27 in Moose Jaw, Sask. The championship will bring together the host Moose Jaw Generals and five regional champions (Pacific, West, Central, Quebec and Atlantic).
Last season, the 15- to 17-year-old Cougars rolled to their best-ever regular-season record. They finished the schedule at 31-8-1, good for second place behind the Vancouver Northwest Giants (34-2-4). In the playoffs, the Cats swept the South Island Royals in a best-of-three quarterfinal series but then suffered an upset at the hands of the Okanagan Rockets in the semifinals. The games against the Rockets marked the final minor hockey appearances for seven graduating Cougars, most of whom will be skating as juniors this season. Several of last season's 16-year-olds -- including offensive guns Liam Blackburn, Braiden Epp and Brad Morrison -- will also be testing the junior hockey waters this year. All the departures put the Cats in the position of basically starting from scratch.
With Sprague now serving as general manager, Bryan MacLean has stepped in as head coach after two years as an assistant. MacLean, 29, liked what he saw in training camp, especially from 15-year-olds like local defenceman Jared Stevens and forwards Mitch Williams (Prince George), Keith Redden (Quesnel), Dallas Goodwin (Fort St. James), Chase DuBois (Williams Lake) and Colton Thomas (Williams Lake).
"There's a lot of skill in that age group in the north and some of the kids that are left that are 15 have really impressed," MacLean said. "We're pretty excited about the future of the Cariboo Cougars, seeing those guys, and the 16- and 17-year-olds that are here are good, quality players."
Given the relative inexperience the Cougars will bring into the season, MacLean said the returning veterans will have to take on leadership roles. As for the offence, with so much of last year's firepower gone, the scoring will have to be done by committee.
"This team reminds me of the team we had two years ago where we had a lot of depth," MacLean said. "For our team this year I think that's what it's going to be. For us, it will come back to being good in our own end. Good defence leads to good offence because you're getting the puck back and going up ice."
The Cougars will play their first pre-season games this weekend in West Kelowna. They'll start off against South Delta on Friday and will face the Burnaby Winter Club and Okanagan Hockey Academy of Penticton on Saturday. On Sunday, the Cats will take on Kelowna-based Pursuit of Excellence.
The Cougars will play the last of their exhibition contests the following weekend in Chase and Kelowna.
Players remaining in camp with the Cariboo Cougars
Goaltenders: Jeremy Matte (Prince George); Jaxon Nohr (Williams Lake); Lane Delfs (Fort St. John).
Defencemen: Todd Bredo (Prince George); Jared Stevens (Prince George); Scott Cullen (Prince George); Zach Smith (Prince George); Carson Stephen (Prince George); Jordan Low (Prince George); Bryan Allbee (Prince George); Jonah Boston (Kitimat).
Forwards: Steven Jandric (Prince George); Mitch Williams (Prince George); Donovan Law (Prince George); Brogan O'Brien (Prince George); Gregory Dakus (Prince George); Cole Morris (Prince George); Isaiah Berra (Prince George); Jesse Roach (Quesnel); Keith Redden (Quesnel); Brayden Dale (Quesnel); Dallas Goodwin (Fort St. James); Lien Miller-Jeannotte (Fort St. John); Thomas Webster (Fort St. John); Chase DuBois (Williams Lake); Colton Thomas (Williams Lake); Riley Pettitt (Whitehorse); Kole Comin (Whitehorse).