Cougars' Curtis captain material

Josh Curtis will someday be the answer to a Prince George Cougars trivia question.

Who was the last Cougar to play 72 regular-season games in one season?

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Curtis and his teammate, defenceman Ryan Schoettler, played in all 72 games in 2017-18, the last year before the Western Hockey League shortened its schedule to the current 68 games.

Playing a full slate of games takes durability and a high level of skill. Both players showed those qualities and made it impossible for head coach Richard Matvichuk not to put them in the game-day lineup.

For Curtis, heading into his final season of junior hockey, becoming an everyday player in a league a tough as the WHL takes extraordinary effort.

Throughout his career, dating back to his minor hockey days in Winnipeg, Curtis has maintained an unfailing dedication to get better in practice and stronger in the gym and a fearless attitude on the ice that enables him to use his speed and quickness to find the freedom to operate.

Now, just nine days shy of his 20th birthday, he's looked upon as one of the designated leaders of a young team on the rise. After missing the playoffs last year, the Cougars appear to have all the pieces in place to be a contender this year and the five-foot-11, 173-pound Curtis knows it's his job to bond that group and show them what it takes to be a Cougar.

"I like the team so far, we have a lot of young talent and speed and we have the grit as well," said Curtis, who will be in the lineup tonight (7 p.m., CN Centre) when the Cougars play the Kamloops Blazers in the final preseason test for both teams.

"You want to set a winning atmosphere right away and you want to make sure everyone hates to lose and winning those three games so far has been great. Obviously we have some rivals here now and we want to set the tone for the season. We had a rebuild last year and we don't want to rebuild this year.

"We have a little more experience this year, and that's big. I think we have a good chance to do well this season. There's a lot of great guys here."

Curtis has never worn a letter on any team before but there will be one on his jersey this year. Whether he gets the 'C' or not will be decided by the coaching staff and GM Mark Lamb before the season begins next week.

"Josh has really come into his own and he's a guy that does the right thing all the time," said Matvichuk. "If you look back to two years ago to when him and Aaron Boyd were playing on our fourth line, it was tough to see him back there, knowing he did everything we asked them to do but we had so much depth that year and it was a matter of them sticking with it.

"Now Josh is a top right winger for us. He's one of those guys we're going to rely on heavily on the ice and off the ice. The way he speaks to the young guys, the way he holds himself, he is a true leader and it's great to see how he's evolved and we've been a part of it."

Curtis was one of the older Cougars at the end of last season. He and defenceman Joel Lakusta, who just returned from the St. Louis Blues rookie camp, and newly-acquired winger Mike MacLean, are the three 1998-born players now with the team.

"You want to lead the guys and show them the way but at the same time I don't change much of what I do, I've always led by example," Curtis said. "I'm not much of a louder guy but if there's something I can help with I'll do that. Those three 20s last year and even before that with 20-year-olds - (Ty) Edmonds, (Colby) McAuley and (Sam) Ruopp - you learn from them and you take what they taught you and show the younger guys what you were taught, just what's right and wrong.

"I've always been a hard worker and sometimes the results were there. It's gone really fast but it's been very enjoyable."

Over the summer, Curtis travelled to Europe for a 16-day tour and had some of his teammates come by for a five-day visit to his family cabin at Lake of the Woods, Ont., two hours away from his home in Winnipeg.

Curtis scored nine times last season and had 27 assists for 33 points and carried a minus-7 rating on team that unloaded most of its key veterans at the trade deadline. He's never been the type of guy to light up the scoreboard but his quick feet, smart stick and great anticipation make him dangerous on penalty kills. This season, playing right wing on a line with playmaking centre Ilijah Colina and speedy left winger Tyson Upper, don't be surprised if Curtis becomes a 20-goal scorer.

"Sometimes chemistry just comes naturally and we just got paired up in training camp," he said.

"We just played well and played hard and fast and that's kind of turned into something nice. We put up some good numbers in Vancouver (they had a hand in three of the seven Cougar goals) and I like my line."

LOOSE PUCKS: Cougars winger Jackson Leppard, 18, made enough of an impression at the Tampa Bay Lightning rookie camp to be included on the list of 62 players invited to the Bolts' main camp which started Friday in Brandon, Fla... Cougar prospect Cole Beamin, a 16-year-old defenceman for the Nipawin Hawks, scored the Hawks' first goal in their emotion-charged 2-1 victory over the Humboldt Broncos, which opened the season in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League Wednesday in Humboldt, Sask. It was the first game for the Broncos since the April 6 bus crash which killed 16 members of the team.... The Blazers sport a 3-1-0-0 preseason record, same as the Cougars. They beat the Cats 5-0, Aug. 31 in Kamloops. Prince George will be in Victoria next weekend for a doubleheader against the Royals to open the season. The Cats also play Wednesday night in Kelowna before they return home to play the Rockets at CN Centre, Sept. 28-29... Graduated Cougar forwards Aaron Boyd and Brogan O'Brien are now playing in U Sports for the Carleton Ravens and room together in Ottawa. O'Brien is majoring in computer science and Boyd is studying business. They'll be playing against Jared Bethune, the other Cougar 20-year-old last season, who is now studying at Queens University in Toronto.

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