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Cougars, Chiefs set to hit outdoor ice in Fort St. James

Trevor Sprague predicts bodies will be crashing into each other on the ice with great frequency when the Cariboo Cougars and Vancouver Northeast Chiefs clash in an outdoor hockey game in Sunday's Winter Classic in Fort St. James.

That's a virtual certainty considering the rink dimensions of the outdoor ice surface at Ernie Sam Memorial Arena are 31 feet shorter and 12 feet narrower than most rinks in the B.C. Hockey Major Midget League.

"It'll be a lot more physical, one-on-one battles, moving the puck quicker, but it's the same for both teams - you don't tell people (how small the rink is) until they have ice in there and they approve it," laughed Sprague, the Cougars' general manager.

The tiny outdoor rink will be even more of an adjustment for the Cougars. While an NHL-sized rink is 200 feet by 85 feet, the Cougars play on an Olympic-sized sheet at Kin 1 which is 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. The Ernie Sam rink overlooks Stuart Lake at the south entrance to the town on the Nak'azdli Whut'en First Nation reserve.

Conditions are expected to be close to ideal for the 2 p.m. game. There's no snow in the forecast and the high temperature is expected to reach 1 C under cloudy skies after a low of minus 4 C. The Ernie Sam rink is covered with a roof but the temporary spectator stands which will provide seating for about 1,000 are in an open area.

The first-ever modern-era outdoor major midget game in Canada is creating a noticeable buzz in the town of about 1,600 people located 160 kilometres northwest of Prince George. Sprague has been there since Monday working along with a hardy group of volunteers and town workers who have gone without much sleep helping build the ice in the two rinks - Ernie Sam Memorial and the indoor Fort Forum, where the Cougars and Chiefs will play today at 5 p.m.

Until this week there was no hockey ice in Fort St. James. Fort Forum had to be upgraded in the wake of the ammonia leak at Fernie Memorial Arena on Oct. 17, 2017 which killed three workers and those necessary upgrades to the ice plant weren't approved until last Friday. Flooding of the outdoor rink had to be delayed until after the Plexiglas was installed Jan. 4.

"We're building two ice surfaces at the same time, so that's what's made it really hard," Sprague said. "But at the same time it's brought both communities together really well, it's like it's one community. It's pretty cool to see from my perspective as an outsider.

"Chief Alex McKinnon and the council invested in putting in glass and making sure it's a fully-functioning hockey rink and Hockey Canada and Hockey BC approved it. It was a little adversity not having the arena up and going yet, so it was a lot of work for the city crews giving us a hand just to do the paint in the dots."

As of late Friday afternoon, the outdoor rink needed about another half-inch of ice before it was safe to turn the teams loose in practices today. During the day Friday, Cougar coaches Tyler Brough and Hayden James Berra, along with Cougar players Grady Thomas, Max Arnold, Brendan Pigeon, and Curtis Hammond, Lane Goodwin and alumni goalie Marcus Allen, visited the city's two elementary schools - David Hoy and Nak'al Bun - and engaged the students in hockey question-and-answer sessions. The coaches and players also conducted a practice for the Fort St. James bantam team and spent time on the ice with the some of the town's younger players.

"The day has been pretty awesome, we've seen it on social media and to actually come in here and see the work they've put in is pretty exciting," said Brough. "We've prepared for the smaller dimensions, it's going to be pretty congested on the outdoor rink but that's what both teams are dealt. It's going to be pretty fun, some fast hockey and it's going to seem even smaller once the big guys get out there."

For players on both teams, especially the Chiefs, who are all from the Vancouver area, this will be the first time they've ever played a real game of hockey outside. Some of the Cougars are from Prince George, Fort St. John, Whitehorse and Yellowknife, where it's not that unusual to skate outdoors.

"There's a good chance it will be their first and maybe last," said Brough, a former WHL Prince George Cougar who grew up in Grande Prairie, Alta. "I never had the privilege of playing in an outdoor game and I played the game for a long time. This is something they're excited to do but at the same time there will be some nerves there because it's a different atmosphere."

The two weekend games have serious implications in the standings. The Cougars (16-5-3-0) are third in the league, three points behind the second-place Chiefs (17-5-2-2) who have played two more games than Cariboo. A pair of wins for the Cougars would move them into second place behind the league-leading Fraser Valley Thunderbirds (20-4-1-1).

Sprague struck upon the idea of playing the outdoor game last year when the Cougars and Chiefs played two indoor games at Fort Forum. He saw the outdoor rink that was built 10 years ago and the idea was born. Sprague says he wants to make it an annual event.

"This isn't something we want to do just one year, we've got 11 teams in the league and we want to do it for the next 10 years and have a different team each year," said Sprague. "This puts the north on the map, that we're able to do something like this that nobody else can do in our province. It's going to be great."

Sprague says the game should give Fort St. James minor hockey a needed shot in the arm.

"Hockey has been dwindling here in this community," said Sprague. "You see a lot of the parents and the kids are having to go to Prince George or the (hockey) academies and we're hoping the school stuff we've been doing with the younger-aged kids will get them back into it.

"This can be a legacy for these two communities (Nak'azdli Whut'en and Fort St. James), something that's great for all ages. It will get kids more excited about the game of hockey. My coaches and our players love the game and they play it because they love it. It gives them good structure and accountability in their lives."

A fan bus donated by Northern Spirit Transportation will leave from Kin 1 for Fort St. James Sunday at 11:30 a.m.

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