The Prince George Cougars play the second game of a back-to-back set against the Vancouver Giants tonight at CN Centre. If last night's more than half-empty barn was any indication, coming out on a -25 C night to watch a team that hasn't won in nearly a month and is near the bottom of the Western Hockey League standings doesn't seem to be many people's idea of a good time.
This continued apathy towards the Cougars can't continue or Prince George will lose its WHL franchise and it won't get another one back for a generation or more.
That's not being overly dramatic. That's reality.
The owners and the management team for the Cougars aren't hitting the panic button yet but they're increasingly less shy about bluntly stating their current situation.
Last week, Crankbrook lost its WHL team, as the Ice are moving to Winnipeg next season.
As Ted Clarke's story explained, the Ice has had some of the worst fan support in the league for the past several years, including this season, where they've been pulling in 2,218 fans per game on average, last in the entire league.
Guess who's third last and 20th overall in the league?
Your Prince George Cougars, averaging 2,657. Compare that to the usual turnout for the Kelowna Rockets (4,748) and the Kamloops Blazers (4,153).
Worse for the Cougars, fan support is getting worse. Just two seasons ago, average attendance for a regular season game with 3,626. In other words, the team has shed 1,000 fans per game. Now multiply that by 36 home games. Now factor in that this regular season has four fewer games, meaning two less home games to put bums in seats and sell tickets.
EDGEPRO Sports and Entertainment, the team ownership group, has no plans to move the team, Andy Beesley, the team's vice-president of business, told The Citizen, but he didn't mince words, either.
"The owners have made it clear we're not in a profitable situation, we're not even at a break-even situation at this point, but having said that we feel we have a very strong blueprint moving forward," he said. "Our ownership, our hockey staff, our business staff, our management are all more committed than ever to not just make this team viable but to keep it here for the long term and to make sure we're putting a great product on the ice. The reality is we've had a tough couple of years for sure."
Better days are ahead, Beesley promised.
"The great news is we have a young team that is the talk of the league right now. The coaching staff will tell you when we talk to other teams they are envious of what we've got coming up the ranks. Next year we have almost our entire team returning and many of our players are starting to mature into their WHL performance years and settling into their roles. We think the next couple years are going to be strong and that more and more fans are going to come out and watch us."
We hope he's right. Winning has always been seen as the recipe for success for this hockey team, since it moved here 25 years ago from Victoria. When they win, the fans come out and when they don't, they won't, the logic goes.
Yet that recipe didn't work in Cranbrook.
In their 20 years in the Kootenays, the Ice won three league championships and a Memorial Cup, reaching heights Cougars fans can only dream about. The success and the history weren't enough, Cranbook residents voted with their feet over the past five years or so to stay away and now the Ice are going to Winnipeg.
The next two seasons for the Cougars won't be just about positioning the team to win the division and contend for a league title. Those victories will be shallow if there are more green seats than fans to witness them.
As for a move, let's not kid ourselves. There isn't a team in the league that looks forward to visiting the most geographically isolated team in all of Canadian major junior hockey, a six-hour bus ride one-way when the highway's clear and dry. Every team in the league would save on travel costs, particularly those in the B.C. division, if the Cougars played somewhere else.
Nanaimo? Grande Prairie? Yakima, Wash.?
Since the EDGEPRO group bought the Cougars from the Brodsky family, the new owners have poured money into the team and worked tirelessly to build corporate and personal relationships with their fan base. If the team fails here, it won't be for lack of effort on the part of ownership, it will be for lack of commitment on the part of local hockey fans.
The Cougars are Prince George's team.
Whether they stay that way is up to Prince George.
-- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout