Winter Classic about to land in Fort St. James

Male and female midget hockey showcased this weekend on outdoor ice

Half the players who suit up for the Cariboo Cougars have been there, done that, and the thought of playing hockey on an outdoor rink in the Winter Classic in Fort St. James is just as thrilling for them the second time around.

But for the rest of guys on the Cougars, the girls who play for Northern Capitals and the opponents of both teams this will be a first-time event. It's a midget hockey outdoor doubleheader at Ernie Sam Memorial Arena and for everyone involved, this is a weekend they will never forget.

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"It's pretty exciting, how often do you get a chance to play an organized outdoor game that's set up the way it is, the girls are pretty pumped up for sure," said Capitals head coach Mario Desjardins.

"Just last weekend we were down in Vancouver and we played the Comets and they have a lot of people coming up for the game because it's just as big for them. The cold weather might be a bit of a culture shock but they're a pretty good team and we're excited to have the Number 2-ranked team in Canada come up and play in the north."

The Capitals play their outdoor game Sunday at 9 a.m.

The Capitals (10-7-2-0, third place) lost 4-1 to the first-place Comets (17-1-0-0) at the B.C. Female Midget Triple-A Hockey League showcase last weekend and Desjardins says his team has closed the gap since they met the Comets early in the season.

Capitals defenceman Ella Boon and Cougars blueliner Ethan Floris are both from Vanderhoof, a half-hour drive south of Fort St. James, which will likely bump the attendance figures.

"I think it's going to do a lot for hockey in the north, it's going to have a lot of exposure and we're hoping it gets more female players involved," said Desjardins.

The Capitals will also play two indoor games this weekend against Vancouver  - Friday at 7 p.m. at Vanderhoof Arena and Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Fort Forum in Fort St. James.

In the B.C. Hockey Major Midget League standings the Cariboo Cougars (17-7-1-1) rank fifth and with two games in hand they're not that far behind their opponents this weekend, the second-place Vancouver Northwest Hawks (20-7-0-1).

Knowing the buzz the outdoor game created around the league last year and what a novelty it is to play on natural ice, the Cougars decided to extend the invitation to a different team each year and on Saturday (5:30 p.m.) they'll be out in the elements of winter on the Ernie Sam rink to face the Hawks in the first of a two-game series.

Cariboo Cougars general manager Trevor Sprague has been in Fort St. James most of the week preparing the ice with other parent volunteers for the games while battling frigid temperatures which are expected to ease in time for the outdoor games. Saturday's high will reach -14 C with a 40 per cent chance of snow, while the high Sunday is predicted to hit -8, with a 60 per cent chance of flurries - much better than the bone-chilling cold that enveloped the area last weekend. The rink is covered with a roof and the cool temperatures should make for ideal conditions.

"It's going to end up being perfect weather for us here," said Sprague, whose players will be visiting schools for community engagement activities Friday in Fort St. James.

The Cougars play their indoor game Sunday at 12:30 p.m. against the Hawks at Fort Forum.

Last year's Winter Classic on Jan. 20 at Ernie Sam Memorial Arena between the Cougars and Vancouver Northeast Chiefs was the first outdoor game in league history. It was played in above-freezing temperatures and the ice got soft and deteriorated late in the game to the point where a large crack behind one of the nets made for unsafe conditions. That's why there was no overtime and the game ended in a 2-2 tie.

"We have eight or nine players, about half the team, who played here last year," said Sprague. "They're all pretty excited to put on a good show. We're 1-1 against them this year so it should be entertaining games."


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