Being part of the Prince George Cougars culture means a lot to Chase Witala.
It means he gets to stay put in the city where he was born and raised, playing at the highest level of hockey possible for his junior age group.
It could also be his ticket to the NHL.
The 18-year-old son of Darren and Tiffany Witala is blessed with soft hands and well-honed hockey instincts and so far in his WHL career he has thrived. Last season, his second year with the Cougars, Witala drew first-line duty at left wing and as a result finished fourth in team scoring with 15 goals 21 assists and 36 points, respectable numbers playing on a team that ranked second-worst in the WHL.
But to move up to that next level, as he did throughout his Prince George minor hockey days, Witala knows he has to change his game. Cougars head coach Mark Holick has made it known to Witala what he wants to see in the way conducts himself on the ice.
"I'll go in the corners a lot more and get more aggressive in there and each year I'm getting bigger and stronger so hopefully I can put that together this year and get the goals," Witala said.
"I haven't really been a tough kind of player but if that's what Mark wants us to be I'll have to change my role. I'd like to be one of the top guys consistently throughout the year."
During the off-season Witala adding the weight of a bucket of pucks to a six-foot frame and now tips the scales at 165 pounds. He'll need that extra bulk to be the kind of player Holick wants him to be.
"He's a guy we'll look to to certainly add some offensive output this year and the bar's been raised a little bit," Holick said. "When he gets his nose dirty and goes to dangerous areas he's very effective. When he stays on the perimeter and doesn't want to go those hard areas he's very average. Those tough areas are where the goals are scored and if you win those battles in those areas you'll score goals and put points up."
The Cougars won their opening two preseason games last weekend in St. Albert, beating Red Deer and Medicine Hat and tonight at CN Centre they host the Edmonton Oil Kings in the first of a two-game set (7 p.m. start).
Witala graduated in June from D.P. Todd secondary school, so he no longer has to worry about keeping his marks up. He's now focusing 100 per cent on hockey and he knows how fortunate he is living at home during hockey season, a luxury shared by only two other Cougars, Raymond Grewal and Jari Erricson.
"I've been watching this team ever since I can remember so it's really nice," said Witala. "l get to stay with my family and see my friends still and play in front of a home crowd and my grandma too."