One thousand one hundred seventy-four highway kilometres separate Prince George, the northernmost outpost in the Western Hockey League and home of the Cougars, from Portland, Ore., where the Winterhawks carry the distinction as the southernmost WHL city.
For two nights this weekend at CN Centre, fans of both teams will have a chance to get to know one another. A busload of 38 Portland fans from the Winterhawks Booster Club will be coming to watch their 'Hawks play on the road and all but two in the group have never been to Prince George.
"It's a big trip - it's further north than Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and they wouldn't miss this for the world," said trip organizer Stuart Kemp, in his seventh year as president of the 530-member Winterhawks Booster Club.
"The last time the booster club from Portland was up there was 15 years ago, and that was before they had webcasts available and you couldn't get games online. At that time they had five or six buses that traveled from Kamloops to Prince George and then Kelowna and home."
The five-day trip will involve four hotel nights and will cost about $1,000 per person. The Portland fans range in age from the mid-20s to 89. In Prince George they'll be staying at the Coast Inn of the North. They also plan to visit Canada Games House, Treasure Cove Casino, Westwood Sports Pub and Boston Pizza and will get introduced to Mr. P.G.
Kemp, 47, a former pro wrestler and wrestling announcer for Stampede Wrestling, is a native of Vancouver. He once wrestled in Prince George in 2000 under the bad guy alias "Bulldog" Brown Jr. at the Roll-A-Dome, where he scored a rare win over "Tornando" Tony Kozini. Kemp says his group is looking forward to meeting the Cougar fans as ambassadors of Portland.
"We have just a plethora of good people, a lot of them are really good old-school hockey fans and they really enjoy the fact they get out to see the sights and the games. It's a great happening had by all," said Kemp. "The Hawks players have seen us at games. It's heartwarming to know they care about the fact we're there."
The Winterhawks have a rabid fanbase and it's no surprise they have the second-best attendance figures in the WHL, averaging 6,600 per game. The team has had its share of success since the franchise moved from Edmonton in 1976, with three WHL titles and two Memorial Cups for the fans of Portland to celebrate. The Winterhawks have won four straight Western Conference championships and have a strong team again this season.
The bus leaves today to begin the 18-hour trek north to watch the Winterhawks play the Cougars in a two-game set Friday and Saturday. The group had no problem booking a couple rows of seats in Section T so they can sit together to cheer on their 'Hawks.
Spurred by a change of ownership in May and a more professional approach to promoting the team under the New Ice Age mantra, the Cougars have gained 1,100 fans per game over last year but are still averaging just 2,724, less than half of the 5,967 capacity at CN Cente.
Both games this weekend should draw a lot more than that. The Cougars are close to tracking down their first playoff spot in four seasons and Portland is one of the better teams in the league. Nine Winterhawks players started this season at NHL camps, including world junior team members Nic Petan (Canada), Oliver Bjorgstrand (Denmark) and Chase De Leo (United States).
Friday's game coincides with the Break The Ice Networking and Business Expo during the game in the CN Centre concourse and is one of five featured games in the Cougars' ticket package promotions.
Andy Beesley, the Cougars vice-president of business, is looking into the logistics of organizing a Cougars booster club and will be working out the details this weekend after meeting with Kemp and his group.
"They've been doing this a long time and they're one of the best in the league with their booster club and rather than pretend we know everything and just charge ahead, one of our themes since the new ownership took over is to listen to people and learn their best practices," said Beesley.
"We've had fans asking about it and we definitely want to have a Prince George Cougars booster club that goes on some trips.
"We're absolutely thrilled to have them coming up here. A lot of them have never been this far north. We made a nice group package for them and made sure they know that not just the Cougars but the community is going to welcome them with open arms."