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The city that forgot hockey

Once, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Prince George was known to have some of the wildest, most enthusiastic fans in junior hockey.

Once, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Prince George was known to have some of the wildest, most enthusiastic fans in junior hockey.

Way back in a different millennia, in 1999, the producers of a MasterCard commercial came to Prince George to get some footage at a Prince George Cougars game for a spot the credit card company was making to coincide with its sponsorship of the Memorial Cup, the annual national major junior hockey championship.

That's about the closest the Cougars have ever been to the Memorial Cup outside of two flash-in-the-pan playoffs runs, the last one 10 years ago.

Prince George residents still like to brag about how hockey crazy they are but they are living in the past, when commercials were filmed here and the Cougars were upsetting nationally-ranked teams in the playoffs.

The reality is Prince George is fickle when it comes to hockey because it might get them off their living room couches and away from their big screen TVs.

Whatever the price is, it's too expensive.

However good the team is, it's not good enough.

There's always an excuse to stay away from the rink.

The result is sad.

The Prince George Spruce Kings consistently ice a competitive team in the B.C. Hockey League, playing in a vintage arena that oozes character and provides as authentic a Canadian hockey experience as one can get, yet need the funds from their annual home lottery just to survive.

The Prince George Cougars are in the third year of new ownership yet many of the big talkers who said they would only support that team once the Brodsky family sold it are still sitting on their wallets.

The new owners, the EDGEPRO Sports and Entertainment group, made up of local investors and two of the most beloved players in Cougars history - Dan Hamhuis and Eric Brewer - have plowed time and money into the team to build a winner.

This team has been in the national top 10 for 15 consecutive weeks yet can't sell out the joint unless the prospect of winning a huge 50/50 jackpot or a car is on the table.

When the Regina Pats came to town in late November, it was a battle between the number one and number two junior teams in Canada that week.

The Cougars won 5-2 but the sad number was the attendance: 3,287.

Not even two-thirds full. Some hockey town.

A potential preview of the Western Hockey League championship series couldn't excite fairweather fans on a Tuesday night with no snow on the ground and the mercury above zero.

Where was everybody?

With the player acquisitions the team has made since that game, leading up to this week's trade deadline, the Cougars are even better and have made it known that they will contend for a Western Hockey League championship and the Memorial Cup this season.

Not next year, not some day, not when the planets align.

This year.

As if that wasn't enough reason to be an enthusiastic local hockey fan, the Cariboo Cougars, made up of the region's best 15 to 17-year-old hockey players, came within an overtime goal from playing in the final of the prestigious Mac's Midget Tournament for the second time in three years.

This April, the Cariboo Cats are hosting the Telus Cup, the national championship. Past participants in this tournament include Sidney Crosby, Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy and Steve Yzerman.

The Cariboo Cougars don't plan on just hosting, they want to win their way into the tournament.

They are at the top of the standings of the B.C. Major Midget League, having won 23 of their 26 games this year.

Perhaps the problem is Prince George is blessed with quality young hockey teams.

If only it were that simple.

No, the issue is that too many Prince George hockey fans talk a big game but are nowhere to be found at one. Perhaps they've fallen out of the habit or lost interest or just forgotten how much fun watching live junior hockey can be, particularly when the local team is strong.

For those with little or no disposable income who can't afford a night out with the family at either the Kings or the Cougars, no problem. Price of admission for the Cariboo Cougars is the word that warms every thrifty heart: free.

Call yourself a hockey fan? Time to dust off the old jersey, pull on the long underwear and take a seat at the local rink. The teams are great, the experience is fun and it's hockey, for God's sake.

There's no better time to rekindle that neglected love affair with a great game and the proud local junior teams that play it than right now.

-- Managing editor Neil Godbout