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Career Cougars say goodbye - McAuley, Ruopp and Edmonds moving on

Prince George was the last place Colby McAuley wanted to come to when he was making up his mind three seasons ago about where to play hockey.
Colby McAuley of the Prince George Cougars stops up with the puck in front of Victoria Royals defender Brayden Pachal earlier this season at CN Centre. McAuley is one of three graduating 20-year-olds on the Cougars' roster.

Prince George was the last place Colby McAuley wanted to come to when he was making up his mind three seasons ago about where to play hockey.

It took some convincing and a few phone calls by Cougars' scout Bob Simmonds but McAuley did show up for the Cougars' training camp in August 2014.

He joined the Cougars as a walk-on just as the new ownership group stepped in to revive a Cougar team plagued by low attendance and poor results on the ice which put Prince George near the bottom of the list of desirable places to play. Looking back on it now, three seasons later, McAuley knows it was the best decision he possibly could have made.

"It was the only thing that I had - I wanted to prove I deserved to play in the Western Hockey League and I did," said McAuley. "Before that, I didn't hear a lot of good things about Prince George and when I came, it was my only chance. From when I came here, the whole city in these three years flipped.

"This was the best part of my life being here, my best three years, and I'm so happy that I came here to Prince George. I couldn't be happier with the new ownership, they took the nail and put it right on the top of the coffin and supported us as players and they flipped this team right around."

In his last junior season, with big crowds returning to CN Centre, McAuley thrived. His bashing, crashing style as a right winger with good hands earned him duty on the top scoring line and he finished playing the best hockey of his career. With 26 goals and 29 assists for 55 points he nearly doubled his point production from the previous season. The Sherwood Park, Alta., native also sliced his penalty minutes in half, from 156 last season to 87 this year, cutting his fighting majors from 18 to four. In the playoffs, he led the Cougars in scoring in the playoffs with four goals and eight points. They didn't get past the first round but there is still much to celebrate.

"It's the first time in 23 years to put a banner up and I was part of that, this really was a great team and just because we lost out of the playoffs it doesn't mean we can be unhappy about the whole season," McAuley said.

The Cougars' first-round playoff elimination means McAuley and the other graduating 20-year-olds - defenceman Sam Ruopp and goalie Ty Edmonds - will never win a WHL championship. But it's not the end of the world. McAuley's development with the Cougars this season has turned him into a hot commodity and that will very likely result in him signing soon with a pro team.

"There's pro teams talking right now but there's nothing official yet," he said. "I've been wanting to do this my whole life."

Ruopp, the Cougars' captain the past three year seasons, was drafted two years ago by Columbus and is likely destined this week for their AHL team in Cleveland. He's been the heart and soul of a core of homegrown Cougars built through the bantam draft and now he's ready for his shot at pro hockey.

"Obviously we underachieved and it definitely hurts," said Ruopp.

"Besides that, it was unbelievable season. We look at all our accomplishments this year and it's something we'll have with us for the rest of our lives. It's something we should be proud of and I'm very proud of the team. I'm very thankful Prince George was a place I was able to play, going from the owners, from the management, all the couches who have shaped me into the person I am today, I'm very thankful. I put everything I had into this team and it's a good feeling looking back on it."

Edmonds is returning to school at the University of Lethbridge, having signed a commitment to play for the Pronghorns in the U Sports Canada West Conference next season. He earned his first win in his first WHL game and led by example throughout his career as one of the hardest-working players on the team, setting new team standards for career regular season wins (100) and games played (214).

"I'm super-excited about it, it's going to be a great new chapter and excited to start and get going in August there," said Edmonds, who already has five university courses complete and will major this fall in sociology and psychology.

The series loss to Portland left a sour taste but Edmonds admits it was no fluke.

"We lost to a better team," said Edmonds. "The west is a strong conference this year and we knew it was going to be tough and ultimately it showed. They're well-coached and they have some good players who work hard and it sucks we're not in their position but they're deserving of what they got."

Defenceman Brendan Guhle is age-eligible to return to the Cats next year but he won't. The Cougars' MVP has already proven he can play in the NHL, having been called up for three games for Buffalo in December, and today he'll join the Sabres' AHL affiliate in Rochester, N.Y.

"It's a chance to prove myself and get ready for next year and I'm looking forward to it," said Guhle. "I'm not planning on coming back next year but you never know."

Winger Radovan Bondra is destined for Rockford, Ill., the Chicago Black Hawks top farm team, winger Jesse Gabrielle is flying to Providence, R.I. to play for the Boston Bruins' AHL affiliate, and Jansen Harkins, the Cougars all-time scoring leader, is awaiting word on whether he will be sent to Winnipeg to play pro for the Manitoba Moose.

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