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New order in Cougarville

Club president Pateman taking less hands-on approach to running WHL club
John Pateman, president of the Prince George Cougars, speaks to The Citizen about the state of the team. – Citizen photo by Brent Braaten

The writing was on the wall that Todd Harkins was on his way out as general manager of the Prince George Cougars the day Greg Pocock was pushed off his perch as president.

It was Pocock who hired Harkins to take over the hockey operations after the new ownership group bought the team in March 2014. Harkins was the guy Pocock tagged with the responsibility of building the Cougars into a Western Hockey League champion but that obviously did not happen.

After 3 1/2 seasons, still reeling from three straight first-round playoff exists, the Cougars resumed their struggles on the ice. In November, with attendance at home games plummeting and their league standing precariously low, Pocock lost his position as the face of the franchise in a vote of the other five shareholders of EDGEPRo Sports & Entertainment Ltd.

John Pateman took over as president and alternate governor, Pocock remains the team's governor and Eric Brewer is taking on the role as chairman of the board. The move to remove Pocock as president came at the urging of other members of the ownership group - which includes Pateman, Brewer, Ray Fortier, Ernest Ouellet,and Dan Hamhuis - wanting to carry out some of the duties Pocock had taken upon himself.

The power struggle which forced Pocock out of his position had a trickle-down effect and Harkins got caught in the crossfire. The optimism of two seasons ago while the Cougars were pushing for first place overall at the Christmas break crumbled in a fog of question marks when they lost in the first round to Portland. Despite the fact that season resulted in the franchise's one and only WHL banner as division champions, the team's mediocrity in the second half of that season was a puzzler for everyone in the Cougars' organization, leaving a hollow sense of missed opportunity which still lingers. Harkins became the scapegoat.

"Certainly Todd did do some good things for us," said Pateman. "Do we think there could have been more good things? Yeah. It's never an easy decision.

"If you asked Todd of all the things a general manager does, what would he want to do the most, Todd would answer, 'Scouting.' A lot of the other functions, maybe that wouldn't be his first choice. We have a corporate philosophy in all our businesses to play to people's strengths and finding people who can fill the roles you want them to fill."

After losing its core of 19-year-old players last year the team took a big step backwards and the ensuing fire sale in January left the Cougars last in the Western Conference with a 24-38-0-5 record, a far cry from their 45-21-0-3 showing in 2016-17. Under Harkins's watch, the Cats climbed from 27 wins his first year to 31 wins in 2015-16 and 45 wins the following year, then a drop to 24.

"I don't know if it's about (Harkins's) shortcomings, it's about the fact we're a hockey team and have to have continual improvements," said Andy Beesley, the Cougars vice-president, business. "Todd did a good job, but we can't rest on that. We have to look at everything, all aspects of the entire business and the hockey side is being examined and improved on."

The Cougars owners unveiled a nepotism policy this past season which forced Harkins to trade away forward Ethan O'Rourke, the son of Cougars associate coach Steve O'Rourke, then send his youngest son, defenceman Jonas Harkins, packing for Regina. Pateman said Harkins was reluctant to blow up the Cougars' roster at midseason but forced his hand and the moves were made, sending the most marketable veterans to playoff-bound teams.

"That's the kind of decision that gets made at the ownership level and Todd was of two minds, but the ownership did give the direction that we were going to go for the future," said Pateman. "Todd and Bob (scouting director Simmonds) basically sat at Todd's house and did the deals."

By all accounts, Harkins did well with his moves to part with Dennis Cholowski, Kody McDonald, Jesse Gabrielle and Josh Anderson in exchange for younger players and draft picks. The trades Harkins made in 2016-17 to acquire Brendan Guhle, Nikita Popugaev and Radovan Bondra strengthened the Cougars on paper, but there was nothing Richard Matvichuk and his coaching staff could do to conjure up the chemistry needed to bring that team together on the same page. They didn't gel in the dressing room or on the ice. Justin Almeida saw the writing on the wall and asked for a trade, as did Brad Morrison at the end of the season. Ultimately, the trades failed to yield playoff results and to make matters worse, Popugaev, the one player they got back for a second season, decided in October to return to his home in Russia.

The team announced right after the season ended in mid-March that Harkins's contract would not be renewed. He did not attend the WHL bantam draft last week in Red Deer and beyond his scouting work throughout the season he had no input in the team's drafting decisions. That was all handled by Brewer and Simmonds.

Pateman confirmed the Cougars have about a dozen candidates interested in Harkins's job, most of whom are now working either in the NHL or WHL. He said the influence of Brewer and Hamhuis, with their NHL ties, has helped attract qualified individuals who might not otherwise consider coming to Prince George.

During his three-year tenure Pocock was a hands-on majority owner who made the Cougars his primary occupation while still overseeing his other local business interests at Prince George Hydro Mechanical and Forest Power Sports. After three seasons, that approach started to wear thin on some of the owners who felt Pocock was operating in too much of a vacuum in his attempts to better the team.

"I have a file folder of sayings and one of them is, 'I use all the brains that I have and I try to find all the best brains I can find to help me' and as an ownership group we wanted to understand what we were doing and why we were doing it and have some input into that and that wasn't coming easily," said Pateman. "So that's kind of why the move was made. Greg was here on a full-time basis and it just wasn't getting relayed to the rest of the group. We've done a lot of good things, but we've all made a big investment. I don't think anybody thought they would get rich off it.

"Eric and Dan were players here and had a good experience, and we've been business people in the community for a long time and have done well and it's kind of neat to have a hockey team. We want to have some involvement and that wasn't happening with the rest of the ownership group."

Pateman, an accountant and partner at Brownridge Insurance and Intercoast Construction who also owns Western Industrial Contracting and Farr Fabricating, in partnership with Fortier, is much less involved in the day-to-day operations of the team. He keeps an office at Cougar headquarters at CN Centre but is there only about six hours a week.

"We have Andy running the business side and somebody else on the hockey side, and how I perceive my role as president, it's not a full-time job, it's not being involved in the day-to-day issues that much," said Pateman. "It's giving the overall big-picture direction and being a representative of the shareholders and if there's a major decision to be made I'll go to the shareholders and we'll talk about it."

Since he retired from the NHL two years ago Brewer has taken an active role in the team's hockey operations and will continue to lend his hockey expertise as the Cougars sift through resumes to decide on a replacement for Harkins as GM. Brewer lives in Vancouver but for the past year has been spending about one week per month in Prince George overseeing the team.

"When we bought the team, Eric and Dan were both still playing and over time the ownership group as a whole wanted to be more involved in more of the bigger-picture direction stuff," said Pateman. "Eric has spent a lot of time on the hockey ops side. When he was young in the NHL he was playing with guys who were 30 or 35 and now those guys are 50 and they're general managers in the Ontario Hockey League or the National Hockey League or American Hockey League. He's spent a lot of time talking to them to learn how they deal with things, like how many coaches do you have on the bench or do you need a full-time goalie coach? What pieces of the puzzle are we missing and how do we structure it moving forward?"

Pateman said no coaching staff changes are being contemplated. Head coach Matvichuk is heading into the final year of his three-year contract. O'Rourke is signed for another two seasons and assistant coach Shawn Chambers is up for renewal on June 1. Although some WHL teams have one person doing both jobs Pateman says the Cougars plan to keep the head coach and general manager's positions separate.

The Cougars will be on the young side of the junior age spectrum again next season but in the not too distant future help is on the way as the team's bantam draft picks come of age. The odds favour players drafted in the first five rounds to eventually develop as regulars in the league and Harkins, through his trades, has left the team well-stocked. They had eight picks in the first five rounds this year, including two in the first round. Next year will have six in the first five rounds, including two first-rounders - one from the all-in-this-year Swift Current Broncos, who are playing in the league final. In the 2020 draft, the Cougars have seven picks in the first five rounds, including Portland's first-rounder, as well as their own.

"We have six first-round draft choices starting this year and we do think that if we translate those picks into good players we could have a pretty good run here the next five or six years," said Pateman. "I really think if we have a good run or two, we'll get the fans to support it. The corporate community has been really good to us and some of them aren't even hockey fans."