As the youngest team in the B.C. triple-A Midget Hockey League the Prince George Cougars took their lumps last year.
They were forced to climb a steep learning curve playing against older players and it showed in their 6-17-5 league-worst record. Their struggles last season, combined with an influx of young provincial-calibre talent from Terrace, should translate into success this time around for the team, now called the Northland Dodge Northern Cougars.
"I believe we only had three veterans last year, most of the girls were 15-year-olds so it was a building year, so hopefully it's a different story this year," said Cougars co-coach Stu Malgunas.
"It's pretty exciting because Terrace won the bantam triple-A provincials last year and just about all those girls have moved up to our team now with our [head] coach, Mario Desjardins."
The core of the Northern Cougars starts with captain Ava Keis of Quesnel, a strong winger expected to take the lead in the scoring department along with Madison Fjellstrom of Prince George, who finished sixth in league scoring last year with 12 goals and 10 points in 28 games. Centre Sage Desjardins of Terrace will be one of the team's top playmakers. She'll get plenty of support from Kyrsten Franz, Jocelyn Forrest and Megan Hickey, all 16-year-olds, and returning 17-year-old veteran Alyssa Young, all from Prince George.
"There are some girls here who really have a chance to play for the B.C. U-18 team, the one that's going to be playing in Prince George at the  Canada Winter Games," said Malgunas. "Some of the best girls in B.C. are on this team and that's something people might want to come out and watch."
Jayden Malgunas, 16, will anchor the defence along with 17-year-old Tessa Hare of Williams Lake. The biggest change for the Cougars will be in goal, where they have a choice of Kelsey Roberts of Terrace or Avery Quiring of Prince George. Last season the Cougars struggled to find a goaltender and had to convince Kali Walls of Kelowna to move to Prince George as a late addition to the team. Roberts won provincial gold for Terrace last year, while Quiring was in goal for the Prince George bantams when they won the B.C. triple-A crown in 2012.
"Our team has really strong defence, and with those two goalies added this year it's going to be pretty interesting," said coach Malgunas.
Mario Desjardins also led the Terrace bantams to provincial silver in 2012 and last season coached Team North to its first-ever victory at the under-16 B.C. Cup tournament. He's also a power skating instructor.
The Cougars opened their season Friday night at Kin 2 against the Thompson-Okanagan Rockets. ?????? SCORE HERE???? The teams meet again today at 5:30 p.m.,, also at Kin 2, then play Sunday at 9 a.m. at the Coliseum.
The league has added a sixth team -- the Vancouver Island Hurricanes -- joining the Cougars, Rockets, Kootenay Wildcats, Pacific Ravens and defending-champion Fraser Valley Phantom. The league champion will play Alberta in a regional championships for the right to go to the Esso Cup national championship. The 2014 Esso Cup will be played in Stoney Creek/Hamilton, Ont.