Winterhawks fans get a taste of P.G. hospitality

Ninety-one-year-old Ardyce Moore considers herself the troublemaker of the bunch, the loudest of 43 diehard Portland Winterhawks fans who made the trip north to Prince George to see their boys play the Cougars at CN Centre.

If "trouble" means yelling at the top of her lungs to make sure the Winterhawks players knew their efforts to score and keep from being scoring against by the Cougars were appreciated, this dear lady was guilty of that on numerous occasions from her seat in Section E.

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Anything to show the 'Hawks some love while they play hockey in the WHL's most northerly outpost, 1,174 kilometres from the Oregon home.

"I make too much noise but I have a good time," said Moore, who joined the Winterhawks Booster Club when it founded in 1976, the year Portland took over the franchise when the Edmonton Oil Kings moved south.

"I've had the same seats (in Portland) since '76. I go when there's snow, rain, whenever. I go (on roadtrips) when they let me go. This is the second time I've been here and we're always glad to come up because the people here are so friendly. We have so many packages to take home and that puts a lot of weight on our bus but we take everything you give us and we love it. I've got my little Cougar back home and he sits on my counter."

One of Moore's favourite players is 'Hawks 18-year-old defenceman Connor MacEachern, who is from Prince George and played midget hockey for the Cariboo Cougars.

"I love Connor, we're glad you let us have him," said Moore.

This is the second time in two years the 'Hawks Booster Club has made a trip to Prince George. They ended a 15-year absence in January 2015, after regular visits to P.G. in the '90s. Last year they went to Alberta for six-game, 10-day Central Division tour.

"For us, it takes six to eight months to put together a trip, because we want them to have other activities as well," said club president Stuart Kemp.

"It's great to go to games, but if you're sitting in a hotel all day, it's not much fun. So we try to work with the local community and guys like Andy Beesley (the Cougars business vice-president) have been very supportive of us, giving us things to do in town."

The group arrived from Williams Lake Tuesday afternoon and had time to go to the Prince George visitor centre and tour Northern Lights Estate Winery before the game, which had a bad ending for Portland fans when the Cougars scored three times in the third period on the way to a 4-3 victory.

The Portlanders planned to go to the Fraser-Fort George Railway Museum and The Exploration Place and do some shopping before Wednesday's game.

They'll leave Thursday morning for Kamloops, where the 'Hawks play Friday then head to Kelowna for the game there Saturday. Their seven-day trip ends Sunday.

"What's great is the hospitality, and what astounds me is we don't see that in any of the other towns we go to," said Kemp. "Kelowna is great, Kamloops is nice, and Vancouver they have some nice fans there, but here - if people want to have a great time, this is the place to be. The fans are awesome and the people are awesome and it doesn't matter where you go, in a shop, you go to the game, you go to the barber, you go to the winery, the people are all very accepting of you and it's so great because it makes our being so far away from home easier."

Wayne Powell says he can't get over how friendly the city is and even though the 'Hawks lost Tuesday, he was having a great time.

"This is my first time here and I like this place, the people have been superb," said Powell.

"We went to the winery and they were the nicest people you could ever meet. I've been a hockey fan since the early '60s. I like to see the country and how people are making a living and I like to see the scenery. The trip up the Fraser River gorge was just phenomenal."

Now that they're both retired, Mary and Dan Fife of Vancouver, Wash. (a Portland suburb) and finally have the time to take advantage of the booster club treks.

"Last year we took the Alberta trip and it was fantastic, we just loved the mountains," said Mary.

"We've heard nothing but good things about Prince George fans and the minute we walked in the door we felt like we were friends.

"What we love about junior hockey is that these are young boys who leave their families and go thousands of miles away and they play so hard. I would much rather watch this level of hockey than the big boys (in the NHL) because they're doing it to better themselves and the big guys are doing it for the paycheque."

The last time Kemp was in Prince George was two years ago, the 'Hawks were one of the teams to beat and the Cougars were a young team on the rise. Now, with the Cougars first overall, and the 'Hawks one of the youngest team in the league, the roles have reversed.

"You can see that inexperience in our guys at times and it comes out sometimes," said Kemp.

Although the midweek game at CN Centre drew just 2,500 spectators, Kemp says he's encouraged by the Cougars' rising turnstile count, with a near-sellout expected for Friday's game against Moose Jaw.

"I remember when we started coming out here we'd see more greens seats than people, now we're seeing more people than green seats and that means that the New Ice Age (ownership group) is making a difference," said Kemp.

"When we were going through that in '06-07, with the team falling apart, by '07-08 they had just 11 wins and were in desperate trouble and we saw 800 fans in a 10,000-seat building. Nobody wanted to come. But when they got the new ownership and new management and coaching staff, everything started to fall into place. Well guess what happened here? The same thing. They got people that cared, people who wanted to make a difference in the community and a difference for the fans coming to the games and the fans have responded.

"The Cougars are the No. 1 team in the WHL and deservedly so. They've done a great job of rebuilding them in just two years and the fans need to come and support the group, because this is the team that could very well make the Memorial Cup this year."

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