Like most Prince George Cougar fans who have taken notice of the team's rise to the top of the major junior hockey charts in Canada, team president Greg Pocock is extremely encouraged by what he sees at the rink on game nights.
Attendance is up 34 per cent and the stars appear to have aligned at CN Centre.
The Cougar team Pocock and the rest of the EDGEPRO Entertainment Group rescued from near-certain extinction as new owners in April 2014 appears stronger than it's ever been in its 23-year history in Prince George.
The Cougars have set the gold standard for winning this season in the Western Hockey League and have stormed out of the gate to a stellar 18-4-2-0 record. They are serious contenders for the WHL crown for the first time since 2007, the last time the Cougars made it to the conference finals, and every indication is pointing to a lengthy playoff run next spring for Cats fans to get excited about. Not only are they winning, but they play a style that produces plenty of goals and is fun to watch.
"We knew that we had the real deal with the new coaching staff we put in place, and from Day 1 when the players came to the rink they were happy to be here, they're playing for each other, they've bought right in, and we're very proud of all of them," said Pocock, whose team plays tonight in Everett and Sunday afternoon on Portland.
"Now the expectation is to win every night. We, as fans, expect them to win but they expect it out of themselves too. Winning breeds winning and we're off to a good start and on the right track."
This past summer the Cougars totally revamped their coaching staff, adding head coach Richard Matvichuk, the ECHL coach of the year last season and a Stanley Cup-winner as a defenceman with the Dallas Stars. He's brought in high-profile assistants, Shawn Chambers, a two-time Stanley Cup champ as a defenceman for Dallas and New Jersey, and Steve O'Rourke, who spent three seasons in Red Deer learning how to teach the game from Brent Sutter.
Together, they've changed the culture in Cougarville. Ask any Cougar player; they're having a good time at the rink and the coaches are making it fun for them.
"Richard Matvichuk has been a winner at every level (as a player) and coaching he's been a winner at every level and what is so amazing to me is how calm he is," said Pocock. "He doesn't get excited, he's got a lot of experience and composure and players feed off what the coaches do and it's really helped this group. He's been very fair and very clear with the guys and when a mistake is made they discuss it and move forward and the players just love that. They know where they stand."
Many of the players now thriving as Cougars were identified as young bantams while current GM Todd Harkins was a scout with the team. Harkins is heading into his fourth year with the Cats, having taken over as GM from Dallas Thompson in April 2014.
"Todd Harkins, in the early days when we named him interim GM, had a vision for what he wanted to do with this team and that vision and the way he was able to present it really made me feel comfortable he was the right guy for the job and he's executed on that vision," said Pocock.
"When you look at how many changes Todd has made right up until this season, not only our coaching staff but our scouting staff, our player group, it's been top to bottom in our hockey operations."
The addition of 19-year-old defenceman Brendan Guhle in a trade last week from the Prince Albert Raiders could be the deal that puts the Cougars over the top as championship contenders.
Already blessed with six NHL-drafted players, including Jansen Harkins (Winnipeg Jets), Sam Ruopp (Columbus Blue Jackets), Brad Morrison (New York Rangers), Jesse Gabrielle (Boston Bruins), Tate Olson (Vancouver Giants) and Josh Anderson (Colorado Avalanche) and potential pro prospects Ty Edmonds, Colby McAuley and Kody McDonald, Guhle brings a can't-miss label with him to the Cougars blueline.
"That was a very disruptive move, not only did we serve notice to the rest of the league but I think now everybody is kind of scrambling a bit to try to try to figure out counter that move," said Pocock. "I think we put every team on the defensive and I don't the Cougars have ever done that before, and that didn't happen by accident. Todd built the depth in the organization over two years to allow us to do a deal like that and it's working for us."
Playing for the last-place Raiders, who are looking to rebuild, the Cougars weren't the only contending team interested in Guhle's services. But GM Harkins has friends in high places and it turns out he used to play minor pro hockey in the AHL and IHL with Raiders general manager Curtis Hunt while they were prospects for the Calgary Flames.
The Hunt connection led to the Cougars acquiring goalie Nick McBride last season and Harkins told Hunt he'd be calling him about Guhle if the Cougars got off to a quick start, which they obviously have done. They agreed on the price - 17-year-old defenceman Max Martin, 18-year-old winger Kolby Johnson, the Cougars' first-round pick in 2018 and a third-rounder in 2019 - and Guhle became a Cougar right after he'd played them that night. He made Harkins look like a genius in his first game with the Cats Tuesday when he scored the first goal in their 5-2 win over the Regina Pats. "It's hard to write a script like that, you trade for a player of his calibre and he goes out there and scores the first goal against the top-rated team in the country," said Harkins.
Jansen Harkins is showing signs he will accompany Guhle at Canada's world junior camp next month in Toronto and Pocock expects both of his star players won't be around much in December.
"I think Jansen deserves it," said Pocock. "He brings exactly what you need to build a successful winning team and we have to expect we will be down two players during that time frame. He makes everyone around him better and that's a quality pro-level scouts identify and seek and it's something the average fan doesn't see, those subtle little things."
After years of last-place teams and non-playoff years in the early-2000s, the Cougars are no longer thought of as the whipping boys of the WHL. The resurgence of the franchise and increasing fan support has made Prince George a desirable destination for junior-aged players. Fnally, with an exciting and winning team to watch, the fans are coming back to show their support and CN Centre is once again becoming a crowded place to be seen for hockey hordes.
"We're up 34 or 35 per cent over last season and it's been slow coming, but the buzz is very loud in Prince George right now," said Pocock. "We're getting the level of support we'd hoped to get, maybe not as quickly as we'd hoped, but it is coming. We realized the element we had to bring was a winning team on the ice and now that we are winning games the fans are responding and we're very happy to see that.
"We made the comment when we bought the team that we bought it to hang a banner and we fully intend to do that this season. We've certainly had a plan from the get-go on the hockey ops side and that plan has evolved exactly as we'd hoped it would play out. There's still a lot of hockey left this season and lot of things that can happen."
The Cougars have hired Mark Goodwin as manager of ticket sales, who has worked for several NHL teams, most recently the San Jose Sharks. The Cats have designated 12 of their 36 games as feature games and so far all have resulted in crowds of close to 5,000 or more.
The Cougars 50-50 draw total for the Prince Albert game went over the $100,000 mark, which prompted a phone call this week from the NHL-owned Edmonton Oil Kings to the Cougars office asking how they did it. In two seasons, the Cougars 50-50 fund has put back more than $1 million into community-based charities. But Pocock admits sponsorships and advertising have been a tough sell.
"On the business side, things have been slower than we anticipated," he said. "We've made a lot of investment in changes to improve the entertainment value of coming to a Cougars game (the club shared the $850,000 cost the city paid for its new CN Centre replay screen) and for us, one of the rewarding and exciting things is we're now being held out as an example of how to turn around a franchise.
"We're getting calls from across North American on how to do that."
How the Cougars were built
The foundation of this year's Prince George Cougars team was laid five years ago, when Rick Brodsky still owned the team and Dallas Thompson was the general manager. Thompson was the GM up to and including the 2014 bantam draft and made some wise decisions with his picks.
In 2011 he picked D Sam Ruopp (fourth round) and G Ty Edmonds (ninth round). Both are now 20-year-old Cougars.
The current Cougars team has 10 19-year-olds, six of whom were picked by Thompson in the 2012 draft. That list includes F Jonas Harkins (second overall), F Brad Morrison (seventh overall), D Tate Olson (second round), F Aaron Boyd (second round), D Shane Collins (third round), and F Brogan O'Brien (10th round).
In 2012, the Cats drafted D Josh Anderson (third overall), F Kody McDonald (second round), Kolby Johnson (third round), D Shame Collins (fourth round), F Lane Zablocki (fourth round) and F Josh Curtis (eighth round).
In 2014, with Todd Harkins as director of player personnel and head scout, they drafted F Justin Almeida (fifth overall), D Max Martin (second round), D Ryan Schoettler (seventh round).
The 2015 draft was the first for Harkins as the GM and one of those 16-year-old players F Jackson Leppard (eighth overall), is on the current roster. D Jonas Harkins (second round) was reassigned to the midget Cariboo Cougars on Friday.
The Cougars have two import players in the lineup, F Bartek Bison and F Yan Khomenko, both 18-year-olds. Bison was a Cougars' pick (20th overall) in the 2015 CHL import draft, while Khomenko was released by the Everett Silvertips and picked up by the Cats over the summer. The Silvertips selected him in the second round in 2015.
Several Cougars have come to the team through trades, including the most recent addition, 19-year-old D Brendan Guhle. Guhle was picked up a week ago in a deal from Prince Albert in exchange for Martin, Johnson, the Cats' first-round pick in 2018 and their third-round pick in 2019.
F Jesse Gabrielle, 19, was acquired in August 2015 from the Regina Pats along with the Pats' fourth-round pick in 2016 for Zablocki and the Cougars' fourth-rounder in 2017. G Nick McBride, a 19-year-old, was picked up from Prince Albert in November 2015 for the Cougars' second-round bantam pick in 2017.
On other 19-year-old, F Jared Bethune, was recruited out of the Minnesota high school ranks while Harkins was the Cats head scout and was added to the protected list in 2013. F Colby McAuley, 20, was a free agent invite to the 2014 training camp and made the Cougars as an 18-year-old that year. D Joel Lakusta, 18, was acquired from Saskatoon along with a sixth-round pick in 2016 in exchange for the rights to then-20-year-old goalie Collin Olson.