It was a reminder of the good old days -- 4,000 people in the seats, enjoying Western Hockey League action in Prince George.
The big crowd, reminiscent of the late 1990s and early 2000s at the Multiplex/CN Centre, showed up last Saturday afternoon for a game between the Prince George Cougars and the star-laden Edmonton Oil Kings. It was Hockey Day in Canada, and CBC cameras were in the building to capture the sights, sounds and the electric atmosphere.
And there truly was a buzz in the air. The fans felt it, especially after every goal for the home team, and the players and coaches felt it. Afterwards, Cougars captain Troy Bourke spoke about what a lift it was to play in front of throngs of people instead of a sea of empty seats, and head coach Mark Holick talked about how he hoped crowds like that would return for future home games.
Then came Tuesday night, when the Cougars hosted the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Announced attendance, which is always more inflated than true attendance, was a woeful 1,398.
Even though the Cats lost Saturday, 7-6 in a shootout after blowing a 6-2 lead in the third period, the game was WHL hockey at its best. The pace was fast, intensity was on display every shift, and each team scored beautiful goals. Heck, Cougars forward Todd Fiddler had three all by himself, a couple of them roof-jobs that would have made any NHLer smile with satisfaction.
All that drama, including the Edmonton comeback and a jaw-dropping shootout winner by Phoenix Coyotes prospect Henrik Samuelsson, wasn't enough to bring the fans back on Tuesday.
More than a thousand people had free tickets for the Hockey Day clash and others were there on a two-for-one deal. And hardly any of them -- with a full-price ticket now required for entrance -- decided to spend Tuesday night watching the Cougars again. The Cats, by the way, beat the last-place Hurricanes 5-2 and deserved every bit of the success they had.
So with a city that seems to care not about its team -- an unsustainable situation from a business point of view -- where does WHL hockey in Prince George go from here?
Ultimately, one of three things will happen: the ever-limping Cougars will make some dramatic strides and win the fans back; or, the team will relocate to another city, just as it did when it moved here from Victoria 20 years ago; or, it will be sold to the highest bidder. While vice-president Brandi Brodsky says no real offers to purchase the club have been made in the past few years, interest from various groups -- including locals ones -- has certainly been expressed and dollar amounts have been thrown on the table. Depending on Brodsky's definition of "real," a sale may just be a matter of settling on a number that both sides find acceptable.
If a sale did take place, the Cougars would in all likelihood remain in Prince George, especially if the buyer was local. League commissioner Ron Robison has said the WHL would prefer not to uproot the club, and, logically, the league would want to give the new owner or ownership group the chance to turn things around here.
However, Robison has also stated that attendance at CN Centre must improve in order for the Cougars to remain viable in Prince George. He has also made no secret of the fact the league would like to have two franchises on Vancouver Island to give teams heading to Victoria a little more bang for their ferry-crossing buck. Nanaimo is seen as the best option but, right now, doesn't have an arena that meets WHL standards in terms of seating capacity.
In recent years, Winnipeg has also been part of the discussion whenever the subject of WHL relocation or expansion comes up. But with 12 of the league's 22 teams in the Eastern Conference, relocation from another eastern city would be the most probable scenario, otherwise the Eastern and Western conferences would become even more unbalanced than they are already. Eastern Conference teams that would be considered candidates for relocation, based on low attendance figures, are the Kootenay Ice and Swift Current Broncos.
Here in Prince George, we are better off with the Cougars than without, and not just because they help offset the operating costs of CN Centre. They allow us to see some of the best major-junior players in Canada, guys who will be skating in NHL arenas in the near future.
Guys like Samuelsson and his Oil Kings teammate Griffin Reinhart, who is shooting for a pro career with the New York Islanders. And nightly, we can watch a player like Bourke, a Colorado Avalanche draft pick whose passion and skill is in plain sight almost every time he's on the ice.
Last Saturday's game at CN Centre proved there are still hockey fans in Prince George. It showed Prince George can still support a WHL franchise.
But, if nights like Tuesday continue, we leave everything open to uncertainty.
Here's a guarantee though.
If the Cougars leave, they won't ever be back.
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