When 16-year-old Caden Brown lines up this season to play his first Western Hockey League game, he will become the first second-generation Prince George Cougar.
Chosen by the Cougars in the first round, 17th overall in the 2020 WHL draft, Brown did not get to play last season as a 15 year-old, unlike Cougars forward Riley Heidt, who suited up for all 22 games. With hockey league cancelled because of the pandemic, the WHL made an exception to allow each team one underaged player in the 2021 season and Brown did not get to play for the Cougars.
He’s making up for that lost time, however, and has shown in training camp why the Cougars picked him so early in the draft after seeing play for two seasons with the Delta Hockey Academy U-15 prep team. Brown scored the Cougars’ third goal in a 5-3 preseason loss Friday in Kamloops and also played in Saturday’s rematch, a 7-6 shootout win over the Blazers at CN Centre.
“It’s different playing games, it’s almost been a year for me,” said Brown, who played just a few games for the Cariboo Cougars last year before the pandemic shut down the league. “I’ve put in the work (in practice) and I’ve gotten a lot better and I’ve worked on my skating a lot, working with Steve O’Rourke. My stride is so much better, it’s more smooth and I feel more confident now.
“The Cougars have done a great job bringing in guys and obviously Riley did well in the bubble and was fun to watch. I just hope I can come in this year and do the same and contribute and play a role on the team. I wanted to come to P.G. and I was super-happy that got to go. I have tons of family here on my dad’s side.”
Brown was born and raised in Fort St. John but Prince George has always been his second home. He’s related to the Martin clan that built many of the city’s ball fields and for the past year has been living in the city where his father Ryan played, as one of the original Prince George Cougars.
“There’s something to be said for playing in a community that you know around people that you know and he has plenty of support systems around him,” said Ryan Brown.
“One of the things we looked at before we came to Prince George was opportunity and what the team is going to look like in the future. They’ve had some really strong drafts and have a lot of good young talent so in our opinion they’re going to have a really strong team for years to come, so it was obviously high on our list of places for Caden to go.”
Caden is slotted at right wing for the Cougars and plays the position with an edge. He loves the physical side of the game and while he has a bit of growing to do, at five-foot-11, 190 pounds, he knows how to take hit. He also has great hands with the puck on his stick and the Cougars are confident he’ll develop into a prolific scorer in the WHL, just as he showed a couple seasons ago in his draft year. As captain of his Delta Academy team in 2019-20 he scored 35 goals and had 30 assists in 30 games.
“He’s a different player than I was,” said Ryan. “He’s got a grit level to him and there’s not as big of an emphasis on that as it used to be but it’s still a very important part of the game. He plays a hard heavy game and he’s got a talent level that I never had. He has a nose for the net. I think by the time he was in pre-novice he’d already outscored me for my lifetime total.
“He loves to score and he’s tenacious around the net. He always has his head up reading the play and that’s one of those things that’s not easily taught. He’s one of those kids who has good vision around the ice.”
Having as his guide a father who played pro hockey has given Caden a step up on his peers and he loves having him around to discuss how to become a better athlete and get the most out of his hockey skills.
“He’s been great helping me so far, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am without all the helpers,” said Caden. “He’s been through it all and lets me know and lets me know what going to come next for me and it’s really nice to have that.
“He played a little differently, he was more of a fighter and didn’t typically need his stick too much. He’s really implemented into my game to play the body because it’s kind of a lost art in hockey today. I think that’s one thing I have on lots of guys is I like to play the body a lot, and it helps my game a lot.”
The elder Brown’s tenure with the Cougars was shortlived and he came at an eventful time for local hockey fans. They were still getting used to novelty of cheering for their own major junior team, but wins were few and far between. Owner Rick Brodsky moved the Cougars up from Victoria and at the time they were one of the weakest teams in the league.
Acquired in a trade from the Swift Current Broncos, Brown’s Jeep broke down twice on the highway and he was late for the game that day on Oct. 23, 1994. He walked into the Prince George Coliseum halfway through the first period and joined the rowdy crowd of 2,184 spectators packed into the Prince George Coliseum to watch his new team lose 8-7 in overtime to the Saskatoon Blades. It was their 11th loss in 13 games to start the season.
“When I heard Prince George was getting a team I was immediately excited because it was a hockey town, so when there was an opportunity to come here I jumped at it” said Ryan, a 47-year-old oilsite construction consultant. “It was great with all the family there and I had gone to school there and had a lot of friends there.
“Playing in the old Coliseum, it was old-school hockey, for sure. There’s definitely no separation from the fans. When you go into the corner you can see them right on top of you and hear them talking. It was a loud place when it would get rocking. It was just one of those old-school places that everyone liked to play in. They might as well have built those boards out of concrete, there was no give. There are not many of those places around anymore.”
To make room for Brown on the roster, the Cats traded 20-year-old defenceman Graeme Harder to Portland. Harder will be best remembered as the Cougar who scored the first goal at the old Coliseum, Sept. 23, 1994, in a 6-3 loss to the Tacoma Rockets.
Brown, a bruising six-foot-four, 230-pound defenceman, arrived with a reputation as one of the toughest players in the league. He started his four-year WHL career as a 17-year-old in Seattle in 1991 and in 60 games that season he had a goal, an assist and 230 penalty minutes. The Thunderbirds hosted the Memorial Cup that season and finished third out of four teams. Brown was traded to Swift Current 19 games into the 1992-93 season to a powerhouse Broncos squad that went on to win the Ed Chynoweth Cup and represent the WHL at the 1993 Memorial Cup in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. He caught the eye of the NHL scouts and was selected in the fifth round, 107th overall in the 1993 draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Brown played one more full season with the Broncos, and in his 20-year-old season, after seven games, the Broncos shipped him to Prince George for a fourth-round pick in the 1996 bantam draft.
After 32 games with the Cougars, Brown was sent to the Tri-City Americans in a mammoth five-for-five trade on Jan. 25, 1995. He was part of a package that sent forwards Rob Butz, Dorian Anneck, defenceman Alexandre Boikov and goalie David Trofimenkoff to Tri-City. In return, the Cougars got defenceman Sheldon Souray and Kevin Bertram, forwards Ronald Petrovicky and Geoff Lynch and goalie Mike Walker. The Americans were the top team at the time in the U.S. Division and got as far as the conference final, which they lost to the eventual Memorial Cup-champion Kamloops Blazers in a six-game series.
“That (Kamloops) team was full of a bunch of nobodies, like Jarome Iginla, Scott Niedermeyer and Shane Doan,” Brown said.
“No one likes getting traded but I was a 20-year-old at the time and you knew the team wasn’t going to make the playoffs and I was fortunate enough to get traded to Tr-Cities and we had a long playoff run that year. It was a nice place to end my WHL career.
“The league was different back than and I could actually see it change through the four years I played,” he said. “If were in a 2-1 game and pulled your goalie and it ended up 3-1 after they scored in an empty net, you would look down the bench and everybody would be taking off their elbow pads. You’d go out that next shift and it would be a free-for-all. That first year I played in Seattle, we’d beat you on the scoreboard or beat you in the alley.”
Brown went on to a six-year pro career in the IHL, ECHL and AHL which includes stops in Nashville, Atlanta, Raleigh, Cleveland and Columbus.
‘I didn’t quite make where I wanted to end up but in the meantime I got to play a sport I love and got paid to do it and got to live in a lot of great cities I might otherwise not have been able to see,” he said. “It really was a great experience.”
Ryan’s parents, Ian and Anita, are from Prince George and they were living in Boyle, Alta., when he was born 47 years ago. The family moved several times, following Ian’s career as an RCMP officer before they came to P.G. Ryan played peewee hockey in the city before they settled in Fort St. John.
A year ago, he and his wife Tannis bought a house close to Ryan’s parents in College Heights, where they live with Caden and their 14-year-old daughter Peyton. He’s hoping to finish up his current job project and be at CN Centre when Caden and the Cougars open the season against the Kamloops on Saturday, Oct. 2.
The Cougars are on the road this weekend for exhibition games Friday in Maple Ridge to face the Vancouver Giants and Saturday in Victoria, where they play the Royals.