On the stairway to the Western Hockey League (WHL), a major (actually a minor) step towards the top is through local grassroots teams.
In the newly formed Cariboo Hockey system, before the best north-central region players can reach the major midget level, they must go through a competitive regiment where they must learn to lead themselves as individuals and as a team.
That’s known in Prince George as the Cariboo Minor Midget Cougars hockey club, where 19 players aged 15 develop in the sport, prepare themselves for the highest midget level next season and take in life lessons off the ice.
Ryan Howse has been handed the reins of the 2019-20 squad, consisting of players who were on the B.C. bantam tier one provincial-champion North Central Bobcats.
He considers himself more of a teacher, however, given how he had other players teaching him when he was 15 years old and playing for the Cariboo Cougars.
“I had those older guys who were 17 to kind of help me out and guide me,” said Howse in an interview with PrinceGeorgeMatters. “This group, you have all 15-year-olds and you got to try and look and find someone who’s going to be that leader who’s really going to step up and, like I said to them in the dressing room, they got to take control. I’m here to help, I’m here to teach and that’s what I go by; try to show them, guide them, and it’s up to them to run with it.”
This past weekend, that leadership building was put to the test in their season-openers on home ice against the Okanagan Minor Midget Rockets.
The Cats were swept out of Kin 2 Arena and are 0-2 to start the new season after losing 6-2 on Friday (Sept. 28) and were shut out 8-0 on Saturday (Sept. 29).
Out of the team’s four points on the scoresheet in that two-day span, Linden Makow recorded two of them (one goal, one assist) on Friday, both on power-plays, with Decker Mujcin lighting the other lamp and Tye Peters nabbing the other helper.
The good news for the boys in red and white is that there’s 30 more games in the 32-game season and Howse believes the demons of last year’s semi-final exit will need to be jousted in more ways than one if they intend on claiming a championship banner.
“Playoff hockey is a whole different beast,” the 28-year-old added. “You know, we were right there in the semi-finals, but we just need to find a way to bury teams. We lost a double-overtime game and then we had the lead again in Game Three and it didn’t quite go our way. So this year, we really need to bear down on that third period; that’s going to be crucial for us and to teach these young guys to have that killer instinct is huge. It’s tough for 15-year-olds, but if we can really drill that into them, then we’re going to be just fine.”
The leadership core of the Cariboo Minor Midget Cougars consists of alternate captains Makow, Mujcin and Peters, and team captain Scott Cousins, a hockey player whom Howse praises for wanting to take on such an important role.
“Scott’s a guy that kids gravitate towards, who follow him,” he said. “He’s just got that respect from these kids that I saw earlier [...] He’s one of our best players, our go-to players, and the thing with leadership is, there’s a little more responsibility put on them and that’s all about learning and developing. That’s what I’ve explained to them; something I’m going to try and do my best to let to kind of let them lean on them and let them take control of the room. I’ll be there to teach when I need to, but I’m going to put the responsibility on them and they can handle it.”
Howse moved back to Prince George last year to coach the bantam tier two team and when he heard about the new six-team Cariboo Hockey business model this past off-season, it was a ‘no-brainer’ in joining the other alumni in the program.
He’s looking forward to working with minor midget coaching staff which consist of three other former Cougars in Chase Astorino, Ty Edmonds and Stu Lambert.
“We’ve been through the system, we’ve played here, we know what it takes, we know what the expectation is. Working with those three is great because of the hockey minds, the dedication, the focus, the passion, it’s all there, and that’s what we’re all working towards is pushing these kids up to the major midget level and beyond. We all have that same goal in mind.”
The Cariboo Minor Midget Cougars will look to get their first win of 2019-20 when they’re back in action in just under two weeks.
They take on the North Island Minor Midget Silvertips Oct. 12 and 13 from Kin 2 Arena.