From John Pateman’s viewpoint high in the club seats section behind the end-zone netting at CN Centre, the Wednesday night crowd was hard to spot among all those empty green seats.
The Brandon Wheat Kings were in town for their first visit in four years to play the Prince George Cougars and, predictably, the crowd count was abysmal. In a building that seats nearly 6,000, the announced attendance was 1,671 and if that’s a true indictor of all the tickets sold, it looked like half of the ticket holders stayed home.
Too bad for them. They missed an entertaining game. The Cougars dominated the Wheat Kings at times and outshot them 40-28 but weren’t able to outscore them. Brandon goalie Carson Bjarnason was the difference-maker in a 2-1 Brandon win.
Pateman, the 69-year-old Cougars president/alternate governor and part owner was disappointed with the outcome and the fact not many people were there to see it, but still he was impressed with what he saw out of his team. He’s been watching the players dangle the puck and fill the nets since the start of training camp and needs no convincing this Cougar team will be a contender come playoff time in late March.
The Cougars have two NHL draft picks for goalies, an experienced mobile blueline led by captain Ethan Samson and Hudson Thornton, a pair of potential high-round NHL picks in Riley Heidt and Koehn Ziemmer, and couple of 20-year-old puck-movers up front - summer acquisitions Chase Wheatcroft and Noah Boyko - both adept at creating offence. Their power play looks good, although they have some work to do on the penalty kill, and they seem to be catching on to Mark Lamb’s defensive strategies and tactics to go on the attack. They just need to start winning on a consistent basis, a trait that so far has failed them as they take a 3-4-0-0 record onto home ice Saturday against the Eastern Conference-leading Winnipeg ICE (6 p.m. start).
“Obviously we’ve got a little more experience this year but we’re still relatively young,” said Pateman. “We’ve got some good prospects and we didn’t pay a lot to get (Wheatcroft and Boyko). We have an exciting team, we have some skill now and hopefully we’ll be winning more than losing.”
To try to appeal more to families with young kids, the Cougars have rolled back their Saturday night game time one hour to 6 p.m. As well as the three Mega 50-50 draws, there’s more theme night promotions like this Saturday’s minor sports night giveaway of a Canucks game package and everybody who wears a jersey gets a second entry on the draw. Game presentation away from the action on the ice is crucial to keeping fan interest high and Pateman thinks the Cougars are on top of that and those fan interactions will create energy in the building that’s been missing in years past.
Taylor Dakers now wears two hats as the goalie coach and the Cougars business manager and he’s doing what he can to raise corporate support and local sponsorships. This is his seventh season in the league as a coach and before he joined the Cougars in 2018 he’d already been in the league as a coach for five seasons with Red Deer and one year with Everett. Pateman has confidence that Dakers, with his expanded role with the team working in the front office, will help the Cougars build bridges in the community and make inroads with their fanbase.
“He’s been in the league a long time and he’s been in every arena and he’s at up top watching game presentation and whatever it takes to get energy in the crowd and he’ just got a lot of good ideas on marketing and creating excitement for the fans to make it a high-energy event people will want to come to,” said Pateman.
The Cougars used to be the darlings of the league as far as attendance was concerned and CN Centre gained a reputation as of the toughest buildings for opponents to play in. For four seasons from 1997-01 the average attendance for a 36-game season was 5,700 or better. Heck, they even had a MasterCard commercial in the winter of 2000 that showed a Prince George crowd waving their Cougar paws among a sea of white.
“We’d all love to have that again, and for any chance of that happening we have to at some point go deep (in the playoffs),” said Pateman.
The Cougar crowd average started to drop in 2001-02 (5,202) and continued its freefall with every dip in the standings. It went from 4,386 in 2002-03 to 3,584 in 2003-04, the start of bad stretch of Cougar teams that ended up missing the playoffs seven of the next 11 years. Since 2007, the last time the Cats made it to the third playoff round, not including the two pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 when there was no postseason, the Cougars failed to qualify seven times, and in all six of their playoff years they were ousted in the first round.
When Pateman and the local group of investors bought the team from Rick Brodsky in May 2014 there was immediate spike at the turnstiles, from an all-time low of 1,693 in 2013-14 to 2,852 in 2014-15 and that continued for the next two seasons, peaking at 3,626 in 2016-17 when the Cats won the first regular season title in team history. But yet another first-round playoff exit and a disastrous decision to bring in a new ticket policy based on where you sit alienated hundreds of season ticket holders, especially seniors whose ticket costs doubled. Instead of having their loyalty rewarded by grandfathering them in to avoid a major price hike, instead they were told they had to move to lower vantage points in the ends of the rink close to the glass to keep paying what they used to for seats near centre ice. Consequently, many of the Cougar faithful spoke with their wallets and decided not to renew their subscriptions and the rink has been less than half full for the past five seasons.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” said Pateman. “We kind of limped into the playoffs last year and we didn’t make the playoffs the four years before that, and with COVID there’s still some people a little bit nervous about coming out.
“On the hockey side, they always talk about the first half of the year for development and the second half of the year is for winning. On the business side, we’re looking at developing too. We have a pretty young crew in the office, but it’s a crew that really motivated and it’s got a lot of good ideas and they have a free hand to experiment and we’ll keep trying lots of things.”
Pateman and the rest of the Cougars’ EDGEPRo Sports & Entertainment Ltd., ownership group get the fact the team and its lack of success over the years has tested the patience of hockey fans in the city and it’s been tough to get them to come back, but they haven’t lost faith. They saw what having a championship contender did to pack the downtown barn for the Spruce Kings a few years ago and there’s no reason to think Prince George sports fans will continue to stay away in droves from a team that has a good chance of winning on any given night. But that hesitancy among the fans persists, and it’s up to the Cougars to prove they can be one of the best in the WHL.
Times have changed compared to their first decade, when the Cougars were still a shiny new toy playing in a brand-new arena. Just about everybody has a big-screen TV at home and they can watch their favourite NHL team play an 82-game season on cable. Times are tight and most families have less disposable income than they did a couple decades ago and having some of the best 16-20-year-old hockey players coming to town is no longer enough of a selling feature to bring a mass audience to the rink for all 34 games.
“I grew up in Kamloops, and Kamloops went through quite a doldrum there for a while and it’s kind of come back,” said Pateman. “You have to excite the fans and give them a reason to come and it builds on itself. Going back to 2017-18 trade deadline we didn’t have any draft picks moving forward and we had to bite the bullet for four or five years. We knew we were going to take our lumps but now we think we’re going to have pretty solid hockey team for the foreseeable future.”
Recognizing how critical it is to draft the right players and what happens when draft picks fail to pan out, the Cougars doubled their scouting staff four years ago, from seven to 12. Their advice on choosing prospects and GM Mark Lamb’s shrewd trading skills have kept the cupboards well stocked. The Cats will have six draft picks in the first three rounds in 2023 which will help if they decide to go all-in at the January trade deadline.
“Of the group we drafted that would be 20 this year, not one made the Western Hockey League,” said Pateman. “Last year we only had one 19-year-old on the team and the league is typically dominated by 19-and 20-year-olds and a few special 18-year-olds. Our leading scorer last year (Heidt) was 16 and our second-leading scorer (Ziemmer) was 17. Now, this is the first year since the 16-17 season that we’ve got a team that can score a fair number of goals and be an exciting team to watch. We haven’t had that for a lot of years, so time will tell if we get people coming back and enjoying it.”
Pateman doesn’t like to think about how much money the owners have lost since they bought the Cougars but it is substantial, and it’s getting more expensive to run a junior hockey team. Hotel rooms have doubled in price and are hotel managers are refusing to cut hockey teams deals that used to allow them to check out after the pre-game nap. Restaurants are still trying to recoup their losses from the pandemic years and the higher cost of food is showing up on menus. Then there’s the price of diesel fuel for the bus, which only seems to go up.
“We’ve got to get more of the business community on board just as much as the fans,” said Pateman. “In terms of dollars, we probably need 50 per cent more fans at the game and probably 50 per cent more sponsorship revenue. We think we have a playoff team and you never know what happens in the playoffs. We’d like to get to the stage of maybe breaking even in the season and then maybe getting a bit ahead of the game in the playoffs.”
So where does that leave the Cougars? Despite their losses, there’s no indication ownership is going to move the team to greener pastures or sell it to somebody that might want to build a rink a rink in Nanaimo. The Cougars’ brain trust has faith the bleeding will stop eventually and a winning team on a lengthy playoff run would do wonders to make that happen. But it is up to the fans to show whether they want a WHL team to continue waving the P.G. flag.
Regan Bartel, the Kelowna Rockets play-by-play announcer, figures he’s made 48 trips to Prince George and has been behind the mic for at least 100 games at CN Centre and in his Regan’s Rant column he was critical of Cougar fans for deserting the team. Bartel cited examples of how the city and its volunteers got behind events like the 2015 Canada Winter Games and the 2022 BC Summer Games to make them successful, well-run sporting events and he can’t understand why the Cougars don’t have a much larger following.
“The team is young and exciting,” wrote Bartel. “The ownership group is committed. The GM/head coach, Mark Lamb, is savvy and accessible. The sale of the team was eight years ago. Eight!! Whatever supposed damage Brodsky did to the business community while the owner of the franchise has to be forgotten. Surely by now the wound has healed. If not, get over it!
“At one time the Prince George Cougar fan base was the envy of the league. The Cougars played to full houses, yet now attendance has dwindled to one of the smallest in the league. As the team turns the corner on the ice with what can only be considered one of the most talented, young teams in the Western Conference, it is time for the fans to step up. If they can’t get excited with this group of players - now - they never will.
“Is it a wait-and-see attitude in Prince George? Maybe. For now, lets blame the small fan base on a lack of success by the hockey club on the ice, but if the Cougars are near the top of the BC Division standings, yet the fans continue to stay away, I am calling them out. It isn’t the organization’s fault for apathy in the city. Sports fans in Prince George will have to take a long hard look, not at the team, but themselves.”
It’s tough to argue with that logic.