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Cancellations, stalled careers, pandemic tainted local sports scene

Tyrell Laing couldn’t save the UNBC Timberwolves from meeting a non-playoff fate in 2020. It certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying.
UNBC men in Calgary.jpeg
UNBC T-wolves guard Tyrell Laing dribbles the ball during a game against the Calgary Dinos. Laing, a graduate of Prince George Secondary School, won the U Sports Canada West Conference scoring title in 2019-20.

Tyrell Laing couldn’t save the UNBC Timberwolves from meeting a non-playoff fate in 2020.

It certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying.

The 21-year-old Prince George Secondary School graduate found his groove at point guard and continued to hone his talents in his fourth season playing U Sports basketball. His ability to find the twine from all angles turned him into the Canada West scoring champion.

Laing averaged a UNBC program-best 21.9 points over the course of a 20-game season to claim his crown. He fed off the strengths of his teammates, especially fourth-year guard Vova Pluzhnikov and sensational rookie forward Fareed Shittu, to shatter T-wolves’ single-season marks for assists, rebounds, field-goal percentage and minutes played.

Laing could not prevent an 11-game losing streak that dropped the team out of playoff contention but he certainly did enough to merit his selection as The Citizen’s sports newsmaker of the year for 2020.

"It's almost surreal to think how far I've come in a year's time, to only start seven games (previously in his career) and now lead Canada West in scoring," said a 21-year-old Laing, in a Feb. 19 Citizen feature.

"I'm not sure how many people have won the scoring title playing in the same city they're from, so I think that's pretty cool. Just growing up in Prince George I've taken a lot of pride in trying to inspire the younger kids. When I'm out there and I see some kids in the stands it's like looking in the mirror and I can put myself in their shoes. I want to show them that you can be as successful as a basketball player as you want to be and you can do it here.”

COVID-related postponements and cancellations dominated the sports scene in 2020. Varsity high school sports activities were quashed  and minor sports leagues and the T-wolves soccer teams lost their seasons.

The pandemic exploded across the globe the week 12 teams arrived in Prince George to contest the World Women’s Curling Championship. A small army of volunteers was assembled and the ice at CN Centre was perfectly pebbled for the nine-day tournament when they plug was pulled the day before it was set to begin. Kelly Einarson’s Team Canada crew was joined by some of the volunteers for a mini-bonspiel to salvage some joy after their work was wiped out by the growing threat of the virus.

“It’s heartbreaking to be part of something for 2 ½ years and to get so close to really being able to roll it out,” said then-CN Centre general manager Glen Mikkelsen, vice-chair of the host committee. “Then, with circumstances changing around the globe that needed to be responded to, it was hard to see it coming apart before our eyes.”

Other victims of the pandemic were the Western Canadian Ringette Championships in March; Canadian Masters Badminton Championships and April-May; Kelly Cup Men’s Bonspiel/Prince George Ladies Bonspiel in April; and the Canadian Native Fastball Championships in August. In September, the Prince George Iceman organizing committee announced the popular mid-winter multi-sport endurance race will not be happening in 2021 and in November the Caledonia Nordic Ski CLub pulled the plug on the world youth/junior biathlon trials.

In one of the most cruel turns of fate, Prince George resident Ethan O’Rourke, a centre in his final season in the B.C. Hockey League, had his championship dream shattered when the season was cancelled just before the start of the second round of playoffs, denying O’Rourke’s powerhouse Coquitlam Express their real chance to win a national title.

Professional baseball infielder/outfielder Jared Young was stopped short in his climb up the ladder of the Chicago Cubs’ organization when all minor leagues were shut down.

Neither of the city’s junior hockey teams made much noise this past year as playoff contenders.

The Spruce Kings, having lost all but a few of the players from the previous year’s Fred Page Cup/Doyle Cup championship team, limped into the BCHL postseason ranked fifth in the Mainland Division with an 18-32-3-5-0 record and were then swept from the playoffs by the Trail Smoke Eaters in a four-game series. Prince George minor hockey product Corey Cunningham had a breakout season and led the Kings with 26 goals in 53 games, which helped him secure an NCAA  Division 1 scholarship with Merrimack University.

The Cougars (20-34-4-4) were still clinging to slim wildcard playoff hopes in March when they vacated their home in CN Centre for the world curling event to head on the road for their final six games of the regular season. They got as far as Cache Creek when the league was suspended for COVID and eventually the season was canceled. In April, the Cougars won the WHL bantam draft lottery and moved up two places in the order to select forward Riley Heidt of Saskatoon second overall.

In late-July, after weeks of having to travel to smaller cities in the region to find indoor arena ice while all six Prince George rinks remained closed, the minor hockey, ringette, speed skating and figure skating community gathered for a protest on the steps of city hall. It worked. Later that night, city council elected to open the three Kin Centre rinks and the ice was in a couple weeks later.

While much of the sports world came to a standstill in 2020, there were some standout Prince George athletes who created a stir with their exceptional accomplishments.

Just before COVID hit in February, the Duchess Park Condors, trying to repeat the success of the 1980 Condors when they became the first team from outside the Lower Mainland to win the higher-tier B.C. boys basketball crown, fell one win short. Ranked No. 1 in the province virtually all season, the Condors advanced to the triple-A championship game in Langley but had to settle for silver after a 79-67 loss to the G.W. Graham Grizzlies of Chilliwack.

Thirteen-year-old Ben Konwicki, a member of the Prince George Blizzard Speed Skating Club dominated his age class at the Canadian Youth Long Track Championships in Red Deer, winning every race he entered, and he wrapped up the month of February with four medals (gold, two silver and a bronze) at the B.C. Winter Games in Fort St. John. Konwicki became the first Cariboo-North East athlete selected for the W.R. Bennett Award over more than 1,000 other athletes for his career athletic accomplishments, leadership qualities and community involvement.

The UNBC women’s basketball team defied the odds in 2020 and advanced to the second round of playoffs on the strength of nine straight wins. That hot streak happened despite injuries that left them with only a couple spares in their second-round two-game matchup against Calgary, where the top-ranked Dinos ended their season. Canada West First Team All-Star Maria Mongomo, in her fifth and final season, and Third Team selection Madison Landry put the T-wolves on their shoulders and delivered the first-ever winning season for the UNBC women’s team in eight seasons in Canada West.

Motocross rider Jess Pettis overcame knee surgery in November 2019 and returned to spectacular form in the summer when he won nine of 12 races to capture the Rockstar Energy MX250 national series title for the second time in three years. The 23-year-old Pettis is now in Florida based at the Baker's Factory motocross training centre preparing for his second season on the Monster Energy AMA supercross circuit in the eastern United States, which opens Jan. 17 in Houston,Texas.

Cyclist Callie Swan, 22, fresh from signing her first pro contract to race for a Quebec-based all-women’s team, joined the Dubai Women’s Tour in the United Arab Emirates in late-February and finished 43rd in a stage race, her lone ICU result before the rest of season was canceled.

In September, after two months of playoffs sequestered in the bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton, Prince George-born-and-raised Jon Cooper guided the Tampa Bay Lightning to their Stanley Cup win in a six-game series over the Dallas Stars. The 53-year-old Cooper has won championships at every level he’s coached and the now has his first NHL title to celebrate.

The Spruce City Men’s Fastball Association was the only local sports league that played a season schedule and Spruce City Stadium provided a safe haven to play ball. With local baseball shut down, the FFR Glass Grays switched to softball and steadily improved as the season progressed. The Grays breezed through the playoffs in September and won the title by defeating Falcon Contracting 15-10.

At the World Cup level, local biathletes Sarah Beaudry and Emily Dickson; snowboard cross racers Meryeta O’Dine, Evan Bichon and Colby Graham; and ski cross racers Gavin Rowell and Tiana Gairns continued to pursue their dreams of competing in the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.

Prince George Cougars goalie Taylor Gauthier achieved his lifelong goal of making the Team Canada roster for the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship and is among the three goalies on the team going for gold in this year's tournament. The 19-year-old Gauthier is coming off his best season with the Cougars.

The local community lost a couple of well-known sports people in 2020 whose contributions made the city a better place to watch and take part in athletic events.

On March 9, Chad Staley, a forward who captained the Prince George Spruce Kings in his third and final season in Prince George before moving on to the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and later a pro hockey career in Germany and Italy, died suddenly at age 25 of an unspecified cause.

Prince George Sports Hall of Fame member Findlay Young, a former president of the Royal Canadian Golf Association, died Oct. 10 at age 92. Young won 11 Prince George Golf and Curling Club golf titles between 1959 and 1970.

In Nov. 6, Christine Cooper, the mother of Jon Cooper, died at age 77 at her home in Prince George after a lengthy illness. She was a longtime volunteer with the Prince George Minor Hockey Association and Prince George Minor Lacrosse Association and for many years was the chief organizer of the Simon Fraser Open golf tournament.