Mark Lamb turned down the bright lights and big-cities that come with an NHL coaching job to remain with the Prince George Cougars.
The 54-year-old native of Ponteix, Sask., ended weeks of speculation he was on his way to rejoin his good friend Dave Tippett, the Edmonton Oilers newly-hired head coach, to join the Oilers as Tippett’s assistant. Instead, Lamb has shed the interim head coach tag he had with the Cougars at the end of last season and intends to fulfill the three remaining years of a four-year contract he signed last summer to be the general manager, now in a dual role as the head coach.
“I put a lot of thought that went into it right from when the season was over and a lot had to do with the meetings we had after the season and the (original) plan was to move on after the interim coaching part,” said Lamb. “In this business, things change pretty quick and the Edmonton opportunity came up and it was a great opportunity to get back in the NHL. Even though you’ve been there before (Lamb was Tippett’s assistant coach in Dallas from 2002-09) it’s still a privilege to be talked about. You don’t take those opportunities lightly because they might never come around again.
“But when I looked at all the things we have going here, the stuff that we haven’t got going yet, the future of the hockey club and the ownership group we have here, I didn’t think it was the right time to make a move at this point. This is an unreal opportunity also to build something special and the vision I talked about with the ownership is just something I couldn’t put behind. Me and my family made the decision and we’re happy with it.”
Lamb said his wife Tanya, who is from Edmonton and met Lamb when he was playing for the Oilers in the early-1990s, wanted them to stay in Prince George.
Three other WHL head coaches also handle the duties of a general manager – Mike Johnston (Portland Winterhawks), Brent Sutter (Red Deer Rebels), and Dean Brockman (Swift Current Broncos). Lamb held both jobs in the seven seasons he was with the Broncos from 2009-16.
“I don’t think there’s anything difficult about it, you’ve just got to be organized and work hard, but the biggest thing is you’ve got to hire the right people,” said Lamb. “In our scouting we’re going to revamp some stuff there. We need more people and more eyes watching players.
“We’re going to hire an associate coach, a guy with a lot of credibility that is head coach material, that has been a head coach, that can really take charge when I’m doing other stuff. Doing two jobs, it’s two titles, but if you have good people around you with the same vision, you want to be challenged to make yourself better and that’s what we’re going to do.”
The Cougars did not renew the contract of associate coach Steve O’Rourke. O’Rourke, 44, was hired in 2016 after three years as an assistant coach in Red Deer. Goaltending coach Taylor Dakers will be return for a second season with the Cougars.
Lamb confirmed Nick Drazenovic, who served as director of player development, won’t be back with the Cougars, a choice made by the former Cougar captain. He plans to branch out and start up his own business teaching private lessons to minor hockey and adult rec league players.
A big part in Lamb’s decision to extend his duties with Cougars was the relationship he’s built over the past year with the ownership group, which includes locals John Pateman, Greg Pocock, Ernest Ouellet and Ray Fortier and former Cougar defenceman Eric Brewer and Dan Hamhuis.
“They’re one of the main reasons when I talked about taking the job last year – the vision and what I thought we needed to do was right in line with what they were thinking,” said Lamb. “The working relationship between myself and them has been incredible and it’s something I don’t take for granted.
“Eric and Dan played here, but the other owners know this community. They’ve been in the guts of the business for years and they have a lot of roots here the other two don’t have. Eric and Dan are the hockey players, and everyone knows who they are and it certainly doesn’t hurt (player recruitment). The credibility - they see where they’ve gone and the careers they’ve had that started here is something you can look back on and tell the other players you’re trying to recruit.”
The Cougars went with a young lineup last season and missed the playoffs for the second straight year. Long-suffering Cougar fans have had to be patient with a team that hasn’t gone beyond the first round of the playoffs since 2007, when the Cats last made it to the third round. The team has missed the postseason cut in seven of the last 12 seasons.
Lamb left the Broncos in 2016 to take a head coaching job in the AHL with the Tucson Roadrunners, the top farm team of the Arizona Coyotes. The following season the Broncos won the WHL championship. He isn’t making any guarantees he’ll bring the Ed Chynoweth Cup to Prince George but he’s been around hockey long enough to know there is cause for optimism.
“I see a lot of upside, but a lot of things have to go right to make it really work and to ultimately put a team together to win a championship at some point,” he said. “To do that you need good players and draft picks and we’ve done that. Even next year, we’ve got all kinds of draft picks and we’ve got to hit on those and get guys signed. A lot of things have to come into play but potential-wise, it’s there.”
Catching a draft Lamb’s key to success
Prince George Cougars head coach and general manager Mark Lamb, who took over as interim head coach Feb. 7 when Richard Matvichuk was fired, thinks he can build a championship contender in Prince George, like he helped do in Swift Current, knowing the Cougars have been acquiring young talent and stockpiling high draft choices the past few seasons.
That started in 2017 when then-Cougars GM Todd Harkins dealt D Tate OIson to Lethbridge for a third rounder in 2018 which turned out to be D Ethan Sampson. The 2018 draft also brought F Blake Eastman (Vancouver’s second-round pick they gave up in the Brad Morrison deal) and F Ty Mueller (Regina’s third-round pick the Pats sent to the Cougars in the Jesse Gabrielle trade).
Harkins pulled off the January 2018 deal that sent D Dennis Cholowski to Portland and that paid off handsomely for the Cougars. They picked up the Winterhawks’ first-round pick in 2020, second-round picks in 2018 (D Hudson Thornton) and 2019 (D Jaren Brinson) and a third-rounder in 2020. The deal also brought to Prince George F Ilijah Colina and F Connor Bowie. The Kody McDonald trade in 2018 to Prince Albert gave the Cougars D Rhett Rhinehart and D Austin Crossley and the Raiders’ ninth-overall pick in 2018, which the Cats used to select F Craig Armstrong.
The Cougars also shipped D Josh Anderson to Swift Current before the 2018 deadline to acquire the Broncos’ first-rounder in 2018 (which they used to pick G Tyler Brennan 21st overall) and Swift Current’s first-rounder 2019, which the Cats used this past May to select Keaton Dowhaniuk, considered the best defenceman available in the draft. Dowhaniuk went third overall after the Cougars sent the second-overall choice to the Winnipeg Ice, who gave up their third-round pick to Prince George in 2020. The Cats used their own first-rounder this year, fourth overall, to pick F Koehn Ziemmer, who played with Dowhaniuk at Edmonton Okanagan Hockey Academy.
Next year, the Cougars will have two first-round selections, a second-round pick, and three choices in the third round. They also have an extra seventh-round choice, acquired the Kjell Kjemhus trade from Moose Jaw.
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