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Slumping Cougars fire Matvichuk

Caught in the grip of an 11-game losing streak that's sunk the team into last place in the WHL's Western Conference, the Prince George Cougars have fired head coach Richard Matvichuk.
Richard Matvichuk, now the former head coach of the Prince George Cougars, is shown during a practice at CN Centre on Sept. 1, 2016. He was hired in June of that year to replace Mark Holick. – Citizen file photo

Caught in the grip of an 11-game losing streak that's sunk the team into last place in the WHL's Western Conference, the Prince George Cougars have fired head coach Richard Matvichuk.

General manager Mark Lamb has assumed Matvichuk's duties as the team's interim head coach,with director of player development Nick Drazenovic moving behind the bench as an assistant to Lamb and associate coach Steve O'Rourke.

Matvichuk learned of the Cougars' decision to fire him Wednesday night at CN Centre, after the Cougars lost their 11th-straight game, 4-3 in overtime to the Vancouver Giants. Lamb admitted the losing streak is what triggered Matvichuk's dismissal but regardless of the team's current standing it became apparent Matvichuk would not be returning for a fourth season behind the Cougars' bench.

"This has been ongoing for a while - I think it was inevitable that something was going to happen last night, win or lose," said Lamb. "At the start of the year we talked about a lot of development and getting better all the time and we seemed to be stagnant and just kind of not getting better.

"It's a lengthy streak and it's hard on everybody - the coaches, the owners, office staff, everybody. It's not a fun time and you just can't keep it going. You have to do something to make it change."

Matvichuk's three-year contract was due to expire this summer but Lamb said that did not play a role in his decision.

"Whether he had one year or two years left was irrelevant on how we were thinking."

The Cougars' offensively rank as the worst team in the WHL, scoring an average 2.17 goals per game. Throughout their 11-game slump they scored two goals or fewer in every game except Wednesday when they managed three against the Giants.

Lamb realizes making playoffs is a longshot but there is enough time to instill different work habits and game strategies in his players he thinks will make the team successful in the long term.

"We have 16 games left and we've got to change some stuff and hopefully make everything positive," said Lamb. "We need to get better and play a more consistent game that's going to be more conducive to winning hockey games, it's not about just scoring goals. It's hard to score goals in this league and it's hard to defend and we made way too many mistakes.

"You've got to be real smart defensively and you've got to be real aggressive offensively and when you put it all together it just wasn't getting done. I met with the guys (Thursday) and we're going to change practice habits and change how we think. We'll certainly take a run at playoffs but a lot of things have got to come into play. We have to change our attitude and how we do things around here to start winning some games."

Matvichuk was hired in June 2016 as the Cougars' 12th head coach and in 2 1/2 seasons at the helm he led the Cougars to an 85-89-12-10 record. A Stanley Cup-winning defenceman with the Dallas Stars in 1999, Matvichuk played 14 NHL seasons with Minnesota, Dallas and New Jersey. He came to the Cougars after four successful years as a minor pro coach, coming off a season in which he was ECHL coach of the year with the Missouri Mavericks.

In his first season in Prince George he guided the Cats to their first-ever division crown and a 45-21-3-3 record which established franchise records for wins (45) and points (96). But the team underachieved in the playoffs, losing in the first round in six games to the Portland Winterhawks.

Last season, with the team toiling in mediocrity at midseason, the Cougars unloaded their veteran assets at the trade deadline and they finished in the B.C. Division cellar and last in the Western Conference with a 24-38-5-5 record. They currently rank last in the division with a 16-30-4-2 record and are last in the West, eight points out of a playoff spot.

"First of all, I'm very proud of what we've done here in P.G. - we've put a banner in the (rafters) for the first time in 25 years, the best winning record this organization has ever had and we're very excited for that as a family," said Matvichuk. "My wife, kids, people I've talked to in the community the last 12 hours have said how proud they are of what we've done."

Matvichuk said he did not expect Wednesday's firing, which came a day after he celebrated his 46th birthday.

"I'm a proud guy and when I took the job three years ago, you do whatever you have to do to make things right and that's what I did - the hours of time you spend to make these kids develop, and that's the difference from pro was how much more time you have to spend with these young men," said Matvichuk.

"I want all these boys to succeed, if it's CIS, the American League or the National League, it was my job to develop them and I can hold my head up and say I did the best I could.

"The double-edged sword was the texts and phone calls I got from these kids last night, it made it real special, knowing I did my job. It's always easier to replace one guy than 20. We know where we were at as an organization, it was a rebuild deal and obviously management didn't feel things were set."

Matvichuk will always look back on the 2016-17 season as one of the highlights of his hockey career. Once the team jettisoned its veterans from that team for future assets he fully expected wins would be hard to come by. As badly as the Cougars have performed offensively, their much-maligned power play had goals in each of the past five games and their penalty-killing now ranks seventh in the league.

Matvichuk says the Cougars have been limited by the fact they have to rely on four 17-year-old rookie centremen without WHL experience to carry the load, which he says has a large bearing on the team's inability to score.

"When you go all-in, like we did two years ago, and you take a look at how many players were drafted in the last five years who aren't even playing in the WHL, regardless of whether it's a first-rounder or a seventh-rounder, the development curve wasn't there," Matvichuk said.

"We knew as an organization last year when we decided to go into our rebuild it was going to be a struggle, and it was a struggle. We're not far off where me and the coaching staff thought we'd be, right around 20 or 25 (wins) and fighting for that last playoff spot this year and that's exactly where we're at. Going through the season our goal was to get better every day, the playoffs was never an issue, it was about developing these kids to get ready for the next three years. It wasn't about winning and losing, it was about making these players better every day and I truly believe that's what we did."

Lamb will make his Cougars' debut behind the bench in Kelowna tonight. The Cougars also play Sunday afternoon in Langley against the Giants.

Lamb played 403 games as an NHL centre over 11 seasons for the Flames, Oilers, Senators, Flyers and Canadiens after being drafted as a Medicine Hat Tigers defenceman in the fourth round in 1982 by Calgary. He retired in 2000 and began his coaching career as an assistant the following season in Edmonton with the Oilers. He then went to Dallas as assistant for seven seasons with the Stars from 2002-09, where he coached Matvichuk for two seasons.

He took over from Todd Harkins as Cougars GM last June. The 54-year-old native of Ponteix, Sask., grew up in Swift Current, where he was the Broncos' head coach and general manager for seven seasons. He left Swift Current in the summer of 2016 and served one season as an AHL head coach of the Tucson Roadrunners. Despite his extensive coaching background, he did not expect to be cast into a role as the Cougars coach.

"It was something that was not in my plan at all when I got the job in Prince George but coaching is something I've done my whole life," said Lamb. "I've got a lot more experience coaching than I do as a GM and the comfortable part of it is it's going to be an easy transition for me. Hopefully it's the right thing.

"I've known Richard for a long time, not just only here, we go back to our Dallas days and I have a lot of respect for what he has done, not only as a coach but as a player. He won a Stanley Cup and was a big part of those huge teams in Dallas and that all comes into play, you use those experiences to take into your coaching world. He worked very hard and tried his best to get the team going in the right direction and sometimes just another voice needs to change and do things a bit different and that's what we're doing."

Cougar fans who have stuck with their team ever since it arrived in 1994 are used to hearing the familiar "wait until next year," refrain from team officials. Aside from a few exceptions when the Cougars advanced to the third round of playoffs, that optimism never seems to pan out. But Lamb says he would not have taken the job as GM if he didn't think the Cougars had what it takes to build a winner and says they are exceptionally well-stocked with young talent, high draft picks and a committed ownership group to make that dream of a WHL championship eventually come true.

"The fans have been around a lot longer than I have so their pain is a lot more than mine," said Lamb. "This (firing) was very painful for me too but we do have a lot of good things going on in the organization that's not talked about every day. We've cleaned out a lot of players from last year, we got a lot of players coming into our lineup and we had a really good draft last year and all kinds of assets moving forward. That's the positive part for the team.

"So for the negative part that's been on the ice so far this year, if they can be patient, the other part will be coming at some point. I know everyone's heard it before but that's a common thing in sports, not just in hockey, that we're going to be better, and once you do that there are still no guarantees because there's so many things that can happen to teenaged boys when you're trying to put a team together.

"You have to draft good, you've got to recruit good and get those players signed and then you've got to develop. Sometimes everything has to align for you to win and when you do win you've got to build your organization up to win a couple years in a row and that's what those teams have done."

Matvichuk has already spoken to teams in North America and Europe who might be in the market for a coach. He has no immediate plans to move from the city, where he lives with his wife Tracy and their boys Dillon, 14, and Dalton 11. They have one older son, Cole, 22, who attends college in the U.S.

"It's a tough time, nobody likes to lose their job," Matvichuk said. "As a coach, at some point, you're hired to be fired. We're very invested in the community and it's just one of those things you move on from. Our time in P.G., has been very special, it was a great 2 1/2 years. The friends and relationships Tracy and myself and two boys have made here are really special and they'll be in our hearts for a long time."