The Prince George Cougars resume their WHL season Friday night at CN Centre when they take on the Kelowna Rockets in the first of a two-game weekend set, and it’s not just a game.
Friday’s game is on National Truth and Reconciliation Day, a new federal statutory holiday to recognize the tragic legacy of residential schools, the children who attended them and never returned home to their loved ones, and the school survivors and their families.
The Cougars entered into a formal partnership with the Lheidi T’enneh First Nation last year after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves near the site of the Kamloops Residential School.
A special ceremony will precede Friday’s game, including a two-minute video culled from a visit Cougars players and staff made two weeks ago to the site of the former Lejac Residential School near Fraser Lake. During that trip they met with Nadleh What’en First Nation chief Martin Louie, Lheidli T’enneh chief Dolleen Logan and Lheidli T’enneh elder Clifford Quaw, a former student of the school.
“That was a great experience and it was great for everybody to look at and see what happened – seeing the people they told us exactly what they did and what they went through and everything,” said Cougars head coach and general manager Mark Lamb.
“It’s going to be a special night for everybody.”
Quaw will drop the puck for the opening face-off at CN Centre on Friday. Before the game, there will be a moment of silence to honour residential school survivors and other children whose remains were buried at other residential schools in Canada.
Quaw was taken from his family at age 5 and spent the next 10 years attending Lejac School. At the Lejac visit, he told the Cougars of the mental, physical and psychological abuse he suffered while he was a student/resident. Operated by the Catholic Church under contract from the Government of Canada, the school was open from 1922-1976.
Last year at a CN Centre game, Quaw was presented with an autographed orange Cougar jersey with his name on the back. The number 26, has painful significance to Quaw. It was the number given to him at Lejac and the name he was expected to answer to. Teachers and staff forbid him from using his real name and forced him to give up his language and Indigenous cultural traditions.
“It was very eye-opening, I think for the kids especially because they’d never seen anything like it before,” said Cole Waldie, the Cougars director of communications, broadcasting and public relations.
“They told us a bunch of stories of how their lives were and what got taken away from them and the players, I think, realized how fortunate they were with their own lives.”
At least three Cougar players- Keaton Dowhaniak, Zackary Shantz and Ephram McNutt have ancestral ties to Indigenous people.
Rockets bringing veteran-stacked team
The Cougars are coming off a weekend split in their two-game season-opening weekend against the Tri-City Americans. The Cougars won 5-1 on Friday and lost Saturday’s rematch with the Americans 8-3.
Earlier this week, the Cougars welcomed back two of their three NHL-drafted players - defenceman Ethan Samson (Philadelphia Flyers) and goalie Ty Young (Vancouver Canucks). Goalie Tyler Brennan remains with the New Jersey Devils.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” said Lamb. “There’s a lot of things we worked on this week to clean up defensively. On the weekend, offensively, our team was really good and created a lot of chances, but that second game we just gave up way too much.
“It was a good experience for (16-year-old rookie goalie Madden Mulawka) and I thought he did really good. We’re still tinkering around with chemistry and it’ll take awhile, but there’s a lot of positive signs.”
The Rockets are coming off a 6-5 overtime loss Saturday at home to Portland in their only game so far this season. Kelowna has 19 returning players from the team that finished second in the B.C. Division last season with a 42-20-1-5 record.
Among the key Kelowna skaters to watch are forwards Colton Dach, drafted by Chicago in the second round, 62nd overall in 2022; Andrew Cristall, who teamed up with Rockets defenceman Caden Price to help Canada win gold in the Hlinka Gretzky Cup; and Gabiel Szturc, who played in the world junior championship for Czechia. Price and Noah Dorey, an Edmonton Oilers’ camp invitee, anchor the defence.
Like the Cougars, both Kelowna goalies just returned from NHL camps. Talyn Boyko, the Rockets’ six-foot-eight giant, was a New York Rangers fourth-round pick in 2021 and Jari Kykkanan, who played 13 games as Boyko’s backup last season, attended the Florida Panthers rookie camp.