Team back on track, Cougars president says

John Pateman became a diehard Prince George Cougars fan even before the team came to the city in 1994. He was one of the first 40 to sign a Citizen-sponsored petition with a commitment to support the team as a season-ticket buyer Rick Brodsky let it be known he wanted to move the team north from Victoria.

That was 26 years ago and in that time Pateman has seen his team miss the playoffs 12 of those years, including this year’s COVID-19-cancelled campaign. The Cougars have been postseason outcasts seven of the past 11 seasons. No doubt, Cougar fans starved for a winner have had their patience tested year after year and Pateman, the team president and part-owner, feels their pain when wait-until-next-year optimism that usually follows another early exit fails to pan out the following season. 

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Having bought into the EDGEPRo Entertainment Group that rescued the Cats from near extinction in March 2014, Pateman has never been more convinced the Cougars are on the right track to bring back that sea-of-white playoff success last seen in the 2007 playoffs and the excitement it generated while entrenching Prince George bragging rights as one of the most rowdy and intimidating places to play for visiting WHL teams. 

“There’s 22 teams in the Western Hockey League and everybody wants to win - It comes down to who your key leaders are, your general manager and the team they develop,” said Pateman. “We think we’re going to have a pretty good run here, we might be year away.”

So many pandemic-related questions about hockey operations and facility management return-to-play protocols hover over the Cougars and the rest of the hockey world, which makes it even more difficult for Pateman to forecast what lies in store in Cougarville. 

Will there be a full 68-schedule or will we have to wait until winter to get back to hockey? Will physical distancing restrictions keep fans at CN Centre separated and cut rink capacity for all WHL teams by two-thirds? For teams that rely so heavily on having fans in the building to pay the bills, how much will a stalled economy brought on by more than two months of closed businesses and layoffs drain family entertainment budgets saved for hockey games? 

“To me, the million-dollar question is when are we going to be playing games,” said Pateman. “Certainly in our league, our main sources of revenue are certainly the fans and corporate sponsorships for rink boards and all that, but you have to have fans.

“What everybody is attempting to do is prepare for every option that’s out there so when we know what’s going to happen we’re fully prepared.”

Heading into Season 7 as a Cougar owner, Pateman feels somewhat powerless on decisions about his team’s immediate future which will be made at the league level, based on orders handed down from the provincial health authorities. What he does know is when the puck finally does drop on the new season his team will be much improved, loaded with young talent mostly acquired through the bantam draft, one he thinks they will be good enough to be a WHL powerhouse within the next two or three seasons.

By trading veteran players at the deadlines in 2018 and 2019, the Cougars positioned themselves well in the past three drafts. They had six of the top-70 picks in 2018, five in 2019 and seven this year. The ownership group recognized the importance of getting those picks right and decided two years ago it needed to revamp the scouting staff, raising the birddog budget 80 per cent from what it was in 2014.  

In what was widely considered a bountiful bantam crop, the Cougars had three picks in the first round in the April 22 draft and four of the first 26 choices and have signed all four of those 15-year-olds, including forward Riley Heidt, their second-overall choice. They won’t be old enough for junior hockey this year but the Cougars will have 16-year-old defenceman Keaton Dowhaniuk and centre Koehn Ziemmer, the respective third- and fourth-overall bantam picks in 2019,  as well as forward Kyren Gronick (selected 26thoverall) ready to join the team full-time next season. 

Left with just one player they drafted in 2016 (goalie Taylor Gauthier) and just one from the bantam class of 2017 (winger Mitch Kohner) the Cougars’ lack of scoring finish came back to bite them. It left them a goal short of winning more than a dozen one-goal games and they left town for their last roadtrip of the season still six points out of playoff spot when the season was suspended. 

“We had the choice at the trade deadline in ’17-18 to either be mediocre and just carry on like it had been in the past or attempt to be really good for a fair while,” said Pateman. “We could have traded our future a bit to maybe get into the playoffs or take our lumps for a bit and build through the draft, and that’s the decision we made.

“You have to have the scouts and have the picks. We really think we’ve got a good group of scouts and we think we communicate better or more so with the families than we used to. These last three years we’ve had the picks, and if you can average four players a year (on the roster) you’ve done well. Time will tell.”

Four of the nine players the Cougars drafted in 2018 played with the Cats as 16-olds last season, including forward Craig Armstrong (ninth overall) and Blake Eastman (44th), goalie Tyler Brennan (21st) and defenceman Ethan Samson (65th), who is generating Hockey Canada interest after a solid rookie season.

Head coach and general manager Mark Lamb is heading into his third season with the Cougars and has had two full years to get to know his players and will be back for his second year in the dual role as head coach/GM working with associate coach Jason Smith and goalie/video coach Taylor Dakers. 

Lamb was head coach and GM for seven seasons in Swift Current and laid the foundation of the Broncos team that won the WHL championship in 2018.  He built that team through the draft and Lamb ability to convince players, their agents and their families to play junior hockey in Prince George and sign with Cougars is what it will take for turn those prospects into championship contenders.

“It very much is a 18- and 19-year-old league and a year from now our group from these last three drafts will be 16, 17 and 18 and hopefully they’ll be playing at some point,” said Pateman.

As tough as it was to swallow another losing season on the ice as the team went 20-34-4-4 and finished 19thout of 22 teams, the Cougars also took a bath financially, averaging crowd counts of just 2,333 playing in a building that seats nearly 6,000. Pateman said that left the team about 1,500 fans per game short of paying the bills. Leaving that many seats empty would be perfect to maintain social distancing in the COVID-19 world but it’s not going to a sharp bean counter like Pateman happy. A winning team is likely the only cure for that.

“We understood we were going to lose money, based on the decision we made (to gut the team) in ’17-18,” he said. “Are we losing more than we anticipated? Maybe a bit, but maybe not a ton. I know on the expense side we spend a lot more on scouting, where we were kind of a bit lean. You have to have a team that people want to come and watch and obviously winning helps a lot. I think we’re the only team in the WHL that hasn’t advanced to the second round of the playoffs in the last 10 years.”

Pateman admits the ownership group has suffered growing pains over the past six years and from a business standpoint the team made mistakes with its ticket structure. That was especially true in 2017 when the Cougars suspended age-based pricing for a season and brought in a four-tiered system based on where the seats are located, which in some cases adding hundreds of dollars to the cost of a season ticket for seniors who wanted to retain their same seats. Many of them decided then and there not to renew. The new ticket strategy came months after the Cougars won their first-ever division regular season title, only to lose out in the first round of playoffs. 

“Obviously on the selling of tickets we’ve made some missteps,” said Pateman. “We have a big range of ticket pricing which is probably too big of a range and in hindsight we should have kept that range (priced) a little lower. By the time we get into playing we’re going to have some walk-up ticket adjustments this year. We’d like to be able to say to any walk-up fan that if you want to go to a WHL game in British Columbia that for a comparable seat, no matter how old you are, you won’t find it a more affordable seat in the BC Division.”

The Cougars could be on the hook to have to pay between $250,000 and $288,000 as their part of a $30 million CHL minimum wage lawsuit settlement, which will have to be paid next season. The class action suit was launched six years ago by a group of players against the three major junior leagues claiming they were owed minimum wage and overtime back pay. The three leagues have since successfully lobbied provincial governments to consider the players as student athletes, exempt from minimum wage laws.     

The CHL has hired a consultant to lobby the federal government for financial help to help teams out of the financial crisis caused by COVID, but Pateman says his team won’t be appealing for any government bailouts. They’re going to have to figure out on their own how to make the franchise viable. The team is taking advantage of the federal 75 per cent wage subsidy and nobody has been laid off due to the pandemic. 

Pateman, who works as an accountant for Brownridge Insurance and Intercoast Construction and also co-owns Western Industrial Contracting and Farr Fabricating with Cougar part-owner Ray Fortier, says despite the lean years on the ice and at the box office he’s never felt more encouraged with what lies on store for the Cougars.

“You have to have good people and I think at all levels of our the organization now - the ownership, the hockey side, the business side – we work better as a group,” he said. “I’ve tried to stay as a fan because I enjoy watching hockey games, and in my current role I should probably play the role more as president, talking to people. 

“I felt some real frustration in the early going. But in the last two seasons I feel we’ve really started to head in the right direction.”

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