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Cougars' magical 1997 playoff run started with six-game series win over Portland Winterhawks

Cougars fans went ballistic in a WHL playoff party that went on for three rounds

On Friday, the Prince George Cougars will face off against the Portland Winterhawks to open the WHL Western Conference final at CN Centre. In 2022, prior to the Cougars-Winterhawks opening-round playoff series, the Citizen took a look back at the Cougars' first deep run into the WHL playoffs. In 1997 the Cats made it into the third round for the first time since the team moved north from Victoria and the city went nuts with hockey fever. Here's a repost of that story from two years ago:

Like the sound of an approaching freight train, the low-pitched rumble of thousands of feet pounding on hollow metal stands could be heard in the dressing rooms above the din of the pre-game tunes coming from the ghetto blasters.

By the time the teams came out to skate in the pre-game warmup the tide had come in and a sea of white populated the Prince George Multiplex stands with wall-to-wall fans wearing white shirts, holding signs and waving towels.    

“It’s giving me shivers right now just talking about it,” said former Cougar forward Tyler Brough, who had played 58 games as a 17-year-old rookie leading up to that remarkable 1997 WHL playoff season. “It really was incredible, to have 6,000 people stomping their feet and cheering. We used to laugh about it, we called it SOB - sold-out building – and we’d say, ‘it’s an SOB for warmup, boys,’ and it literally was. You’d go out there and every seat was full for the warmup. It had to be intimidating for the other team. It’s game-changing. It’s super-intimidating to go into a rink when they’re that loud.”

After two seasons wallowing in the lowest depths of the standings the Prince George Cougars made the 1997 playoffs – their first postseason berth in three seasons since the franchise moved to the city from Victoria.

A sixth-place finish in the Western Conference after a 28-39-5-0 season put the 14th-overall Cougars into the playoffs against the first-place Portland Winterhawks, winners of 46 of their 72 regular-season games. Their 97 points left the ‘Hawks tied with Lethbridge for first overall in the WHL. Despite the Cougars having won five of the eight games against Portland during the season, nobody in their right mind honestly believed they had a shot at knocking off the ‘Hawks in a best-of-seven series. Nobody except the Cougars.

“It was a little bit of David vs. Goliath and we had nothing to lose,” said Brough, now a 45-year-old Prince George electrician. “Portland was the top seed and they had some pretty big names with Todd Robinson, and (Chris) Wickenheiser was one of the top goalies in the league. They were tough; they had (Andrew) Ference and (Joey) Tetarenko and they were built to win. We were a ragtag group that got a bit of momentum and ended up knocking them off in six.”

Burdened by inexperience, with only six of their 22 players having played in the WHL postseason, the Cougars didn’t let that become a factor in the series. After losing the first game in Portland 5-2, they gained a split with a 5-3 win in Game 2 and came home to a city gone Cougar mad. Local businesses and storefronts all over the city decorated their windows with Go Cougars Go signs and greasepaint greetings to show their support and the Cougars responded by tying the series with 3-0 and 4-2 victories on home ice.

Stan Butler coached Canada’s world junior team three times, went to the OHL final twice with the Brampton/North Bay Battalion and is the fourth-winningest coach in OHL history and he still rates his ’97 run in the playoffs as head coach of the Cougars as his most unforgettable coaching experience.

“There was a love affair between the underdog team and the fans and the fans knew it was very important that we needed them as a seventh player to help us win and it just took off,” said Butler, 68, from his home in North Bay, Ont.

“The community has to feel you’re part of them and I think that’s what they felt with our team. P.G. loves that you’re the underdog and you don’t get the respect that Kelowna gets and the reason it became so magical is it was so unexpected.”

After two seasons as WHL bottom-feeders, Cougars owner Rick Brodsky cleaned house and brought in Butler and general manager Dennis Polonich to try to create a winning culture in their second season in a new rink, the 5,971-seat Prince George Multiplex - and that’s exactly what they did.

The Cougars, a team that won just 17 games the previous season, got off to a 9-3 start, but that unravelled when they suffered six straight losses on their Eastern Conference roadswing. Saddled with injuries to key players, it was back to the drawing board for Butler and Co. The challenge for Butler, coming in to turn the Cougars into contenders, was to instill in the players the belief they could win at the WHL level and that took a full season to accomplish. They ended up finishing sixth in the West Division with a 28-39-5 record.

“We had to clean up a mess before we could go in the right direction,” said Butler. “We had to convince those guys that losing wasn’t acceptable. By the end of the year I think Polo had made 10 or 11 trades that year and I think in the playoffs you could see the team we were capable of being.

“It was unbelievable, the amount of people who came to the airport to greet us and what the fans did is they made it extremely difficult for the opposing team and they gave our team the emotional lift and quite frankly, the confidence we needed to overcome some things.”

Because of Prince George’s isolation from other WHL cities, a six-hour drive away from its closest opponent, the Cougars were and still are the road warriors of the league. Butler says playoffs level the playing field and that gives the Cats an advantage over most teams not used to long roadtrips.

“As soon as you hit the playoffs, now both teams have equal travel, and for us it was an advantage because we’d done that all the time,” Butler said. “The key in Prince George, honestly, is just to get into the playoffs. Once you get in the playoffs, if you’ve got a decent team you’ve got every bit of chance to win as the other team.

“Isn’t it a small world that now they’re back in the playoffs this year and they’re playing Portland again. Hopefully they can get a little momentum when they get back home and the crowd can help them win. The experience these young guys on the Cougars are getting is invaluable. I’m really excited to hear they’re going in the right direction because part of my heart never left Prince George.”

Star-studded Cougar lineup

The 1996-97 Cougars were blessed with a bevy of future NHL and minor pro talent, including goalies Chris Mason and Scott Myers, defencemen Eric Brewer, Zdeno Chara, Joel Kwiatkowski, Dennis Mullen and Kevin McKay, and forwards Ronald Petrovicky, Blair Betts, Tyler Bouck, Chris Low, Andrew Luciuk, Peter Roed, Quinn Hancock, Jarett Smith and captain Brad Mehalko.

Chara was 19 when he arrived in Prince George, drafted that summer in the third round by the New Your Islanders. Standing six-foot-nine in bare feet and weighing 235 pounds, the Slovakian import was largest hockey player most people had ever seen. Awkward at times on his skates, still in he midst of a growth spurt that stretched his body and limbs, learning a new language and a different culture, it took him a few months to get his bearings and adjust to North American-style hockey.

The son of an Olympic wrestler, Chara had his first hockey fight on opening night in September at the ‘Plex against the Seattle Thunderbirds and it was over quickly. T-birds defenceman Shane Belter was on the receiving end of a hard right to the kisser and dropped to the ice with a thud. It was first of many glove-dropping challenges Chara encountered while earning the league’s heavyweight crown, back when fighting was an accepted part of hockey. But he was never comfortable with the role of an enforcer and didn’t go looking for trouble.

Chara used his strength and albatross wingspan to unload blistering slapshots from the blueline and took advantage of his height and bulk to punish opponents with crunching bodychecks. The long shadows he cast on the ice instilled bravery in his teammates. For the Cougars he was the ultimate intimidator in the Portland series, turning ‘Hawks into doves.

Brough, a 17-year-old rookie with the Cougars that season, suffered a separated shoulder the night before Chara broke his wrist when his arm got smashed into the boards in a game Jan. 11 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Brough was called to the dressing room over the public address system and was asked to accompany Chara in a taxi ride to the hospital in Portland where he had a plate installed to repair the break. Chara missed the next six weeks but came back fully recharged a month before the playoffs.

“Credit to him, he earned everything he got and I don’t think it started out as smoothly as everyone likes to believe,” said Brough. “He was still pretty gangly, a six-foot-nine giant still growing into his body. Yes, he was in good shape and strong but he wasn’t fluid on his feet. He quickly became a steady defenceman for us and by the end of the season he was pretty much the heavyweight of the league, so he really didn’t have to fight. By that time he was saying no to guys like Scott Parker or Tony Mohagen because he was in our top-four and playing a lot. I know he didn’t like fighting.”

Mason, who moved up with the Cougars from Victoria in 1994, got drafted by New Jersey in 1995 and was in his third full season in the WHL. His performance in the 1997 playoffs, starting with the Portland series, led to him signing a free-agent contract with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and that turned into an 11-season NHL career. In the six games against Portland, Mason posted a sparking 2.16 goals-against average and he assisted on three Cougar goals.

Bouck was out of the playoff picture, sidelined after season-ending shoulder surgery. Petrovicky, in his third season with the Cougars since coming over in a trade from the Tri-City Americans, led the team in scoring with 69 points, and he continued to be a threat in the Portland series, collecting a goal and five assists.

Luciuk, who scored the winning goal in Game 4, collected two goals and three assists in the Portland series and finished the playoffs with five goals and 11 points in 15 games, second only to Petrovicky’s 13 points. The sudden eruption of the Multiplex crowd reacting to a Cougar goal in that opening series and the others that followed is something Luciuk and the rest of the teammates will never forget.

“It was special, that’s for sure, to be playing in a sold-out building,” said Luciuk. “The crowd noise from 6,000 screaming fans really helped us along the way and made it a tough place for teams to play come playoff time. It’s definitely easy to get up for game when you have a crowd that size and the fans cheering the way they were.

“We were playing a real good hockey team and we knew they weren’t going to go down without fight.”

Betts pays off for Prince George

Betts was an undrafted 16-year-old walk-on when he arrived for training camp in September 1996 and by the end of the season he had 22 goals and 59 points in just 44 games, centring a line with Luciuk and Hancock. They were the designated checkers assigned to try to stop WHL scoring champion Todd Robinson, coming off a 134-point season and his linemates Brenden Morrow and Matt Davidson. Robinson ended up with two goals and three assists in the series, Morrow had two goals and an assist and Davidson was limited to one assist. The rookie Betts picked up two goals and two assists in the series.

“It was pretty obvious we were playing against their top offensive line and our job was to try to keep them in check and along the way we were able to contribute offensively too,” said Luciuk, now a 47-year-old jail guard in Nanaimo.

“Stan had a ton of confidence in Blair Betts at 16 to ask that much of a young kid like that, but Blair was up to the challenge and he went on to have the career he did in the NHL being such a good defensive centre and checker.”

As the Cougars’ GM in January 1996, Brodsky acquired the 18-year-old Kwiatkowski in a trade from the Kelowna Rockets, along with Hancock and a second-round draft pick, for 19-year-old defenceman Sheldon Souray. That summer, Polonich picked up veteran d-man Kevin McKay, a Chicago Blackhawks’ third-rounder, in a deal with Moose Jaw. When the playoffs began, the Cougars’ back end consisted of Brewer, soon to be a first-round NHL pick, Chara, Kwiatkowski, McKay, Dennis Mullen, Ian Walterson and Jeff Church. Kwiatkowski was a ‘Hawk killer in the series with four goals, Brewer had a pair and Chara and Mullen also scored.

“We had an older veteran group back there and come playoff time they were able to shut things down and keep things under control,” said Luciuk. “All six of them went on to play pro hockey. Chris Mason was an NHL-calibre goalie and he kind of saved his best for last in his Western Hockey League career. Without Chris in there, who knows if we’re even having this conversation. He was definitely a huge part of our success in that playoff run.”

Cats return to home ice for series finale

After losing Game 5 in Portland 2-1, the Cougars got on their bus that night and drove five hours to get to Vancouver, where they took a scheduled flight home the next day. The Winterhawks got to the Multiplex hours ahead of the Cougars, having slept overnight in an hotel near Portland Airport, where they boarded a charter the following morning for a direct flight to P.G. The league has since banned teams from flying to avoid penalizing teams that can’t afford flights for their players.

Fans who didn’t already have tickets for Game 6 starting lining up at 5 a.m. The line stretched around the building and the game was sold out four hours after the box office opened. On March 31st, a crowd of 5,995 packed into the rink hoping to see the Cougars try to wrap up the series and they got what they came for on that evening.

The Cougars fell behind 2-1 in the third period when defenceman Kevin Haupt scored from the point five minutes into the period but Chara tied it up with a slapper at 7:55 and not long after that Betts took a pass from Luciuk in the slot and spun off a backhander that slipped through the legs of goalie Brent Belecki for the go-ahead goal. Eleven minutes later, the celebration was on.

“I know I was on the ice trying to finish the game up and the crowd was absolutely nuts,” said Luciuk. “As the final buzzer was going it was an electric feeling, it was a pretty wicked feeling to pull off an upset like that.”

The fans showed their appreciation, having snapped up all the available tickets for the next two rounds.

“No. 6 knocking off No. 1, I just love it,” said Rick Knight, in a Citizen story that came out the next day. “Hard work and heart, that brought Cougars the victory.”

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had a hockey game,” said Gary Nielson. “Bring on the next round.”

The Cougars went on to defeat the Spokane Chiefs 3-0 in a best-of-five series and that put Prince George into the third round against Patrick Marleau and the Seattle Thunderbirds. The year of the Cats came to an end in the Western Conference final when they lost to Seattle in a six-game series.