Impartiality be damned. It's time for the Prince George Cougars to win some games. Lots of them.
Tonight in Portland, the Cougars start their 20th anniversary season in the Western Hockey League. In the previous 19 years, the Cats have had some shining moments, including runs to the Western Conference finals in 1997, 2000 and 2007. But, after 1,368 regular-season games and 93 playoff contests, they have failed to place a single championship banner in the rafters at CN Centre. They have no regular-season titles and have never advanced past the final four in playoffs.
Since the spring of 2007, things have been particularly dismal. From the start of the 07-08 season to the end of the 2012-13 campaign, the Cougars finished below the .500 mark every year and posted a combined record of 135-272-6-19. During that same six-year stretch, they qualified for the playoffs only twice and were losers in first-round sweep both times.
Not surprisingly, the team's on-ice woes have translated into a shocking number of empty seats on game nights at CN Centre. A building that was once judged to hold the best fans in the WHL now holds only the absolute diehards, fewer than 2,000 most of the time. League commissioner Ron Robison has said on more than one occasion that attendance must improve for the franchise to remain viable in Prince George.
Jump back to the late 1990s, and attending a Cougars hockey game was something to get excited about. The Multiplex, as it was known then, was full of fans and full of energy. Sitting in the seats (or in the press box), it was often hard to believe something this great was happening in the northern outpost of Prince George. On a smaller scale, being at a Cougars game felt like being at an NHL game. In fact, the product was arguably more enjoyable to watch. The kids on Multiplex ice -- probably inspired by skating in front of more than 5,000 spectators -- played with a passion that was often lacking at GM Place in Vancouver.
It's sad that game nights aren't like that anymore. Instead, surrounded by an ocean of empty green seats, those fans who have stayed loyal to the Cats all this time are left to reminisce about the good old days of 40-win seasons, the days of Quinn Hancock, Blair Betts, Trent Hunter, Eric Brewer and Scott Myers.
And of course, that's the only way to put bums in seats again -- win, and keep winning.
This pre-season, the Cougars teased us with a 5-0 record. Along the way, they outscored their opponents 25-8. So, even though the regular season is a completely different beast, there appears to be reason for hope.
At the very least, the results during the exhibition schedule indicate that the Cats' youngsters and up-and-coming prospects are rich in talent and that the club -- powered by those players -- is poised to begin a rise in the ranks. Jansen Harkins and Brad Morrison, first-round bantam draft picks by the Cougars in 2012, are the two smooth-cheeked team members ready to make the most noise as full-time WHLers. Throw in veterans and NHL prospects like Troy Bourke (Colorado Avalanche), Zach Pochiro (St. Louis Blues), Marc McNulty (Detroit Red Wings) and Klarc Wilson (New York Rangers), as well as a rejuvenated Alex Forsberg and a solid goaltender in the form of Brett Zarowny, and the potential is there for a decent turnaround right away.
Hopefully that's what happens this year -- a winning season, a playoff berth and a buzz in the community about the Cougars.
The positive vibe around the team has been absent for way too long.
And memories of the glory days? They can't sustain us forever.