History

The New Den, 1995-96

On November 20, 1993, Prince George residents voted in a referendum, one which would decide whether a new Multiplex Centre and Aquatic Centre would have the go-ahead for construction. A 76.8% voter approval paved the way for the new home of the Prince George Cougars, a 6,000 seat multipurpose facility, whose main tenant was the WHL club, arriving in 1994 from Victoria. The City of Prince George was a buzz on Saturday, September 30, when the Cougars, who had already opened the 1995-96 season a week earlier on the road, got set to host the Portland Winterhawks in their new digs at the Multiplex. Prince George quickly became the envy of many teams in the WHL with their passionate fans and their new home. The Cougars also sported a brand new look on the ice, going with black, red, white and gold as the new colors and a new logo that featured a menacing Cougar head pouncing from a 3-D style black box with red trim. The Cat’s teal green eyes, facial expression and protruding claws gave the Cougars a ferocious, yet traditional look. Cougars President and General Manager Rick Brodsky said, “You want your logo to be something special. I think we have accomplished our goal and ended up with one of the best logos in hockey.” With their new look and their new home, the Cougars were no doubt Prince George’s team, which also hosted the 1996 WHL All-Star game on January 23, 1996. The Cougars had a change behind the bench, with Dale Marquette taking over the head coaching duties. Year two saw Brad Mehalko lead the team in assists with 52 and points with 73, while Chris Low had a team high 22 goals.  Dennis Mullen, a mid-season acquisition from Lethbridge, had a team leading 209 penalty minutes. Chris Mason was the go-to man in goal again, playing in 59 games, fourth most in the WHL that season. The Cougars missed the playoffs again, going 17-53-2, but the pieces were starting to come into place for immediate improvement, with the club selecting Tyler Bouck with the second overall pick in the 1995 WHL Bantam Draft. The Cougars also saw the emergence of Slovak Ronald Petrovicky as a scoring threat and the club acquired Quinn Hancock from the Calgary Hitmen during the 1995-96 season, a move that helped the Cougars take the next step to success.

Magical Run, 1996-97

Cougars President Rick Brodsky found the man to hand over the General Manager title to on May 17, 1996, when Dennis Polonich was hired as GM, after four years in Medicine Hat. For the third straight year, the Prince George Cougars would have a new man running the show behind the bench, with the hiring of Stan Butler, who had served as head coach of the Oshawa Generals for two years prior to his move west.   The Cougars were determined to give their loyal Prince George fans a taste of the playoffs and the season started out very well, with the Cougars playing seven straight at home and winning six of those games. While the team was not able to win at that rate all season, a five game win streak in February helped push the Cougars to a 28-39-5 record for 61 points, 10 clear of the Tri-City Americans, clinching the Cougars first playoff berth in Prince George. The team was led offensively by Ronald Petrovicky and Quinn Hancock, with 69 and 68 points, respectively. The Cougars boasted five 20 goal scorers, Hancock (33), Petrovicky (32), Andrew Luciuk (21), Peter Roed (21) and Jarrett Smith (20). The Cougars had four, 20-goal scorers in the first two years combined. Joel Kwiatkowski led a solid blue line corps with 16 goals and 52 points. The defence also boasted Eric Brewer and Slovak Zdeno Chara, who stood 6’9” and weighed 235 pounds. Chris Mason was tremendous in goal, finishing fourth in saves (1553) and eighth in save percentage (90.0%). The Prince George Cougars first playoff test was as tough as it could get in 1997, going up against the Portland Winterhawks, a team that was tied with the Lethbridge Hurricanes for first overall with 97 points, 36 points ahead of the Cougars. After dropping game 1, 5-2, Mason turned away 44 shots in game 2 and Kwiatkowski had a two goal performance in a 5-3 Prince George victory, putting home ice advantage on the Cougars side. With a raucous crowd waiting for them back home, the Cougars were perfect at the multiplex, dominating game 3 in a 4-0 victory, with 24 saves from Mason, and pulling out a 4-2 win in game 4, thanks to a game winning goal from Luciuk with 1:55 to play. The Winterhawks forced the series back to Prince George for game six with the Cats up 3-2 in the series. The Winterhawks built a 2-1 lead early in the third period and were poised to get the series back to Portland for a game 7. But Chara tied it at 7:55 and Blair Betts scored the deciding goal at 9:18 for a 3-2 Cougars victory and Prince George’s first playoff series win. On to Spokane, where it became a best of 5 in the division semi-final and the Cougars continued winning, taking the series in three straight, with a 5-4 overtime win in game 1, a 4-2 victory in game 2 and Petrovicky getting both goals in a 2-1, game 3 clincher. The Cougars started the conference final with a 3-2 win in Seattle over the Thunderbirds and were tied at two games after game 4, but the Thunderbirds were victorious in games 5 and 6 to take the Western Conference crown. Still, the energy of the 1997 playoffs is still remembered fondly by Cougars fans, who were a major part of that magical run. That summer, Eric Brewer became the highest draft pick from the Prince George Cougars into the NHL, going fifth overall to the New York Islanders and Jarrett Smith was taken in the third round, also by the Islanders.

Building a Contender, 1997-2000

With the thrill of a deep post-season run under their belts, the Prince George Cougars were ready to serve notice to the Western Conference and the WHL that they were a team on the rise. Incredibly, the season would have to begin with a new head coach for the fourth consecutive year. Ed Dempsey moved to Prince George following seven years as a coach with the rival Kamloops Blazers, including the last two as head coach. During those years, Dempsey was part of three Memorial Cup winning teams in Kamloops in 1992, ’94 and ’95. 1997-98 would be a break-out year for the Cougars, who banged out their first season above .500 with a 43-24-5 record, good for a then club record 91 points and third in the West Division. The 24 losses still represents the fewest in a season suffered by the Cougars. The Cougars also scored a record number of goals, setting a club record with 311, led by Quinn Hancock, who’s 54 goals, 58 assists and 112 points still stand as Prince George Cougar records. Blair Betts and Andrew Luciuk hit the 30 goal mark, with 35 for Betts and 30 for Luciuk, respectively. The Cougars set another team high with seven, 20-goal scorers. Scott Myers became the new Cougars starting goalie and had a stand-out year, finishing third in the WHL with a 2.95 goals against average. Another highlight in 1998 saw defenceman Eric Brewer play for Team Canada at the 1998 World Junior Hockey Championship in Finland. The Cougars were back in the post-season, and for the first time opened a series at the Multiplex. The opponent was the Kamloops Blazers, who finished 14 points behind the Cougars during the regular season. However, the Blazers took the first game 2-1 and went up 3-1 in the series after taking games 3 and 4 in Kamloops. But the Cougars got things rolling in game 5, with a 4-1 victory, with Meyers collecting 42 saves for the win and Luciuk scoring twice. The Cougars would have to win in Kamloops in game 6, which saw the game go to overtime tied at 3 thanks to Mike Brown tying the contest with 1:39 left to play in the third for the Blazers. But Jarrett Smith would force the series back to Prince George with the overtime winner at 8:56 of the first overtime period. With a sea of white in the crowd, the Cougars and Blazers put up on a nail-biting seventh game on March 31, 1998, with Kamloops opening the scoring in the second period. But Joel Kwiatkowski tied the game in the second period and Blair Betts scored the eventual winning goal with just over three minutes to play to give the Cougars a 2-1 win and a 4-3 series victory. The Cougars would be ousted the following round by the second place Spokane Chiefs, 3-games-to-1. Blair Betts (2nd round, Cal), Tyler Bouck (2nd round, Dal), Scott Myers (4th round, Pit) and Trent Hunter (6th round, Ana) were all taken in the 1998 NHL draft.

Before the 1998-99 season got underway, the Cougars welcomed a new General Manager with the hiring of Daryl Lubiniecki. That season was also the first for new Assistant Coach Dallas Thompson. Much of the nucleus from the previous two seasons had moved on for the Cougars, making the start of the 1998 campaign an unknown with so many new faces in the line-up. Mike Bayrack, who had 59 points in the 1997-98 season, led the way for the Cougars in 98-99, with a team high 37 goals and 70 points in 70 games. Tyler Bouck and Blair Betts both played for Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship in 1999, held in Winnipeg and Brandon, MB. The pair helped Canada earn a silver medal, losing to Russia in the gold medal game in overtime.   The Cougars finished the season with a record of 34-32-6, finishing fourth and setting up a first round battle with Seattle. For the second consecutive year in the first round, the Cougars would go a full seven games, again erasing a 3-1 series deficit to force the series to the brink. But on the road in Seattle, the Cougars ran out of gas in the deciding game, falling 6-0 in game 7. Bayrack led the Cougars with seven goals and eight points in seven games.

As the 1999-2000 season approached, the Cougars were optimistic their returning core of players could produce another big season. Did they ever. Trent Hunter led the Cougars with 46 goals and 95 points during the season, putting him seventh in league scoring, fifth overall in goals. 18-year old Justin Cox had 33 goals and 19-year old Tyler Bouck had his only 30 goal season in the WHL in just 57 games, once again helping Canada to a medal at the World Junior Championship, this time a bronze in Sweden. There was also the emergence of 17-year old blue-liner Dan Hamhuis of Smithers, who’s December birthday made him not eligible for the NHL draft until 2001. Hamhuis had 33 points in his sophomore season, with 140 penalty minutes, quickly establishing a reputation as one of the harder open-ice hitters in the WHL. The Cougars tied their record for wins in a single season with 43 in 1999-2000, going 43-25-4-5 for 95 points, a new club record. The second place finish in the West Division was also the highest the Cougars have ever placed in the conference. The Cougars went into the post-season with a first round date against the Kelowna Rockets, who finished 38 points behind the Cougars with 57 points. Although the Rockets took the first game 4-2, the Cougars then won the next four games, scoring four goals in each of their wins to take the series in five, thanks to an overtime winner by Hunter in the deciding game. The Cougars advanced to the conference semi-final against Seattle, with the Thunderbirds winning the first two playoff encounters. But they were no match for the Cougars in 2000, with the Cats sweeping the T-Birds in three straight, out-scoring Seattle 16-4 in the process, including a 7-0 romp in game 2 on April 14, 2000 at the Multiplex. In order to get to the Championship series, the Cougars would have to go through the Spokane Chiefs, who were the best team in the West during the regular season with 47 wins and 100 points. Spokane won the first two games in their rink, as the series shifted north for games 3 and 4. The Cougars, with their usually boisterous fan support cheering them on, came back with a 3-0 win in game 3. Game 4 saw the Cougars jump out to a 3-0 lead, but the Chiefs kept chipping into that lead, eventually tying the game in the third period to force overtime. Late in the first overtime period, Spokane would complete the comeback, taking a 3-1 series lead and wrapping up the best of 7 in Spokane in Game 5. Blair Betts and Trent Hunter both finished in the top six in playoff scoring, each with 22 points in 13 games. Hunter earned the Brad Hornung Trophy at the WHL’s Most Sportsmanlike player, marking the first time a Prince George Cougars player had earned a major year-end award. The Cougars were beginning the new millennium on the heels of two final four trips in four years.

Defencemen Dominate First Two Years of Millennium, 2000-2002

The best defencemen in the Western Hockey League from 2000-2002 were a pair of Cougars blue liners from opposite ends of the Yellowhead Highway. Christian Chartier of St. Lazere, Manitoba and Dan Hamhuis of Smithers, BC made up one of the best defensive tandems in the WHL, and they were just as strong offensively. Chartier led Cougars blue-liners in scoring during his overage season in 2000-01, posting 12 goals and 56 assists for 68 points in 63 games that year. Those numbers put Chartier third in Cougars scoring and third among all WHL defencemen in offensive production. Not far behind was Hamhuis, who in 62 games, put up 13 goals and 47 assists for 60 points. Hamhuis not only skated for the Cougars that season, but put on the Maple Leaf at the 2001 World Junior Hockey Championship in Moscow, bringing home a bronze medal. Berkeley Buchko led the Cougars in scoring during the 2000-01 season with 39 goals and 69 points, as the Cougars finished with a 31-33-4-4 record, finishing fifth in the West Division and setting up a first round match-up with the Portland Winterhawks.   The home team won the first four games of the series, with Portland taking game 1, 5-2 and then were a 3-2 overtime winner in game 2. The Cougars came back in game 3 with a 6-3 victory, led by Chartier, Aaron Foster and Justin Cox each collecting three points. In game 4, goaltender Billy Thompson turned aside 34 of 37 shots and Cougars tough man Derek Boogaard scored the overtime winner in a 4-3 Cougars win, which tied the series at two. But the Winterhawks would take the series in six by winning the next two games en route to the Western Conference crown. At the end of the season, Chartier and Hamhuis made up the defensive pairing on the Western Conference All-Star team. Chartier, meantime, would be named the WHL’s Defenceman of the Year, claiming the Bill Hunter Memorial Trophy, capping a tremendous WHL career. Hamhuis would become the second Cougars defenceman to be selected in the first round of the NHL draft, when he was taken by the Nashville Predators 12th overall in the ’01 draft, the first of four Cougars to be selected that year. Thompson was a fifth round pick of the Florida Panthers, Boogaard went to the Minnesota Wild in the seventh round and Dan Baum, 13 spots after Boogaard’s selection, was a seventh round pick of the Edmonton Oilers

In 2001-02, the Cougars came out of the blocks with a modest winning record of 6-5-0-2 in the first 13 games. On October 26, 2001, the Cougars defeated the Kelowna Rockets 5-3 in what kicked off a Cougars record winning streak of 10 victories in a row. The Cougars winning streak lasted until November 23, winning all 10 games in regulation, eight of which on home ice. The Cougars out-scored the opposition 50-21, with half of those wins coming against US division opponents. The Cougars made their highest appearance in the CHL’s weekly Top 10 list, at one point reaching number 3. The Cougars had thoughts of another deep run in the playoffs, acquiring talented forward Mike Wirll from the Prince Albert Raiders, who would end up leading the Cougars in scoring during the season, with 32 goals and 82 points in 72 games. Derek Halldorson gave the Cougars a 40 goal man, notching goals 39 and 40 in the second last game of the season in Kamloops. Hamhuis, meantime, was dominant on the back end, finishing in a three way tie with Wirll and Blake Robson for first on the Cougars with 50 assists. Hamhuis accomplished that in 59 games. Hamhuis was a key member of Canada’s entry at the 2002 World Junior Hockey Championship in the Czech Republic. Hamhuis improved the bronze medal to silver at the event, as Canada lost a heart-breaking 5-4 decision to Russia in the Championship final. The Cougars ended the season with 34-27-9-2 record, good for third in the newly formed BC Division, setting up a first round match-up with the Kootenay Ice. In 2001, the home team won the first four games of the series between Portland and Prince George. In 2002, the road side were winners in the opening six games. Billy Thompson was excellent in Cranbrook to open the series, booting out 72 of 74 shots in helping the Cougars to a 2-0 series lead, with the Cougars hosting games 3 and 4, plus game 5, if necessary. The Cougars out-scored the Ice 7-2 in the opening two games. But Kootenay came back with a 6-0 win in game 3 and then doubled the Cougars 4-2 in game 4. In game 5, Ice sniper Nigel Dawes scored twice, including the winning goal in a 5-3 win. The Cougars went back to Cranbrook on the brink of elimination, but Dan Baum’s hat-trick led the Cougars to a 6-3 win and a trip to game 7. However, the Ice would finally get a home-ice victory, downing the Cougars 5-1, advancing to round 2 and eventually winning the Memorial Cup that year. That first-round series with Prince George proved to be the most difficult for the Ice, who lost three games over the next three series combined. For the second straight year, Hamhuis found himself on the Western Conference All-Star team and for the second straight season, a Cougars blue-liner would win Defenceman of the Year, with Hamhuis capturing the award. But for the first time in Prince George Cougars history, a Cougar was named the league’s MVP, with Hamhuis collecting the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy. Hamhuis capped his junior career off by winning the CHL Defenceman of the Year award, the first Cougars player to win a CHL award. Hamhuis would move on to play pro hockey the following season in the Predators organization. At the 2002 WHL Bantam Draft, the Cougars turned to a local hockey product for their first pick, selecting Nick Drazenovic 11th overall, adding future Captain Greg Gardner in the second round.

Changing of the Guard, 2002-2004

The Prince George Cougars were a team in transition in 2002, with many new faces brought into the line-up for the start of the season, including then 16-year old Eric Hunter, the Cougars first pick in the 2001 WHL Bantam Draft. Dallas Thompson had switched from Assistant Coach to Assistant General Manager during the previous season and was becoming more hands-on from the managerial side of the club. Dan Hamhuis had moved up to the pro ranks which left a big hole on the blue-line for the Cougars. Early in the season, the Cougars made a deal with the Brandon Wheat Kings to bring in a 17-year old defenceman from Roseau, Minnesota. Dustin Byfuglien became a fan favourite rather quickly, with his laid back personality and his canon slap shot, vaulted from a 6’3”, 250 pound frame. Byfuglien set a Cougars rookie defenceman scoring record with 9 goals and 28 assists for 37 points, adding to the one goal and one assist he had with the Wheat Kings to start the season. Blake Robson finished the season as the teams leading scorer for the year and the club’s all-time leading scorer, collecting 31 goals and 86 points to lead the way. Robson, originally with the Portland Winterhawks, finished his Cougars career with 81 goals and 140 assists for a then Cougars record 221 points. The Cougars were fifth in the BC Division with a 26-41-3-2 record, but the team’s 57 points allowed the Cougars to cross-over to the US division playoffs for the first round because they had a better record than the fourth place Tri-City Americans by nine points. In fact, the Cougars were better than the third-place Portland Winterhawks by six points, but were forced into the fourth seed in the division because of the cross-over and a first round date with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Seattle overpowered Prince George, taking the series in five games. In the off-season, the Cougars saw forward Jonathan Filewich selected in the NHL draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the third round and Byfuglien was an eighth round choice of the Chicago Blackhawks. In the 2003 Bantam Draft, the Cougars added another solid blue-liner in the second round, selecting Ty Wishart from Comox, BC.

The Cougars saw another big change following the ’03 playoffs off the ice. Not in the front office, but in the broadcast booth. Glen Dufresne, the voice of the Cougars since the team moved to Prince George, had called his final game for the team in game 5 against Seattle in the ’03 playoffs, moving on to a different professional endeavor. The Cougars broadcast partner, then 550 CKPG and now 99.3 The Drive, hired Ron St. Clair to take over the play-by-play duties for the club, beginning with the 2003-04 season. St. Clair had been working previously in Ottawa for the OHL’s 67’s broadcasts. The 2003-04 campaign started with three wins in their first eight games, finishing a three game road trip with a 6-2 loss to the Vancouver Giants on October 5, 2003. The following day, Monday, October 6, the Cougars were on the search for a head coach for the first time since the 1997 off-season. Ed Dempsey was replaced behind the bench by Lane Lambert, a former NHL’er who had started the season as an Assistant Coach with the Moose Jaw Warriors. Stewart Malgunas remained as the Cougars Assistant Coach. Unfortunately, the coaching change did not lead to a playoff appearance for Prince George, finishing the season with a 30-34-7-1 record for 68 points. A season earlier, that would have been enough to get the Cougars into a cross-over into the four-team, US division playoffs. But with the Everett Silvertips joining the league, and finishing first in the division, the Cougars were forced to miss the playoffs for the first time since 1996. 20-year old Chris Falloon, a five year Cougar who played a total of 336 games in a Cougars uniform, led the team in scoring with 22 goals and 56 points. Dustin Byfuglien was the Cougars leading goal scorer with 30 tallies. 17-year old Justin Pogge made a name for himself in goal for the Cougars, going 17-17-1-0 with a 2.83 goals against average and a save percentage of 90%. The Cougars were in for another change that off-season, with Dallas Thompson appointed General Manager of the Cougars, taking over the reigns from Daryl Lubiniecki, who became Director of Hockey Operations.

Mike Fogolin Remembered, 2004-05

The Cougars had finished the 2003-04 season with many young players beginning to make an impact for the team. One of those was defenceman Mike Fogolin, who played 42 games as a 16-year old, with two goals and three assists. Fogolin was the Cougars third pick in the 2002 WHL Bantam Draft and was the son of former Edmonton Oiler and Stanley Cup Champion defenceman Lee Fogolin. Mike Fogolin was an up and coming blue liner who the Cougars were very high on. As solid a player as Mike was, everyone who knew him would tell you he was a much better person, with a constant smile on his face who cared for his teammates. On May 26, 2004, Mike Fogolin passed away in his sleep of a possible heart condition at his parent's home in Edmonton. The sudden loss shocked everyone, not just in the Cougars organization but in hockey circles across the country. A memorial service for Mike was held on April 1, 2004 in Edmonton, attended by Cougars players and staff, and members of the Edmonton Oilers who played with Lee Fogolin, including Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr. On the opening of the 2004-05 season, the Cougars honored Mike with a video presentation and a #7 patch worn on the left shoulder of each Cougars jersey during the season. With heavy hearts, the Cougars finished out of the playoffs with a 26-41-3-2 record. Dustin Byfuglien had a big third year with the Cougars, his last in the WHL, leading the team in scoring with 58 points. Colin Patterson was the team’s high man in goals, with 27 and 17-year old Nick Drazenovic, the Prince George product, led all Cougars with 38 assists, helping him become a sixth round pick of the St. Louis Blues in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

Back To the Playoffs and Another Deep Run, 2005-2007

The home of the Prince George Cougars went through a name change following the 2004-05 season. On April 1, 2005, the Multiplex became known as CN Centre. Change was the theme to the 2005 off-season. After missing the playoffs in successive years, the Cougars got back to business for the 2005-06 campaign with a new head coach. Mike Vandekamp joined Stewart Malgunas behind the Cougars bench and the team got off to a fast start, winning 12 of 15 games during a stretch between October 2 and November 6, 2005. The Cougars finished above .500 for the first time in four years, compiling a record of 35-31-2-4, with shoot-outs entering WHL play in the 05-06 season. A big reason for the Cougars success was their terrific tandem in goal, with 19-year old Scott Bowles and 18-year old Real Cyr, combining for 10 shut-outs during the season. Bowles established a Cougars record with six shut-outs and a goals against average of 2.40 for the season, to go along with a save percentage of 91.5% in 49 games. Cyr collected four shut-outs in 29 games, had a save percentage of 91.3% and a goals against average of 2.88. Back-to-back first round bantam picks led the way for the Cougars offensively in 2005-06. Eric Hunter, the 8th overall selection by the Cougars in the 2001 draft, reached the 40 goal mark and 72 points in 71 games, including a team high five short-handed goals. Nick Drazenovic, the 11th overall choice by the Cougars in 2002, had 30 goals and 63 points to finish second in team scoring. 16-year old speedster Dana Tyrell, the Cougars sixth pick in the 2004 bantam draft, had seven goals and 18 points during the season, tying him with 19-year old Fred Wikner for the team lead in rookie scoring. Wikner had 10 goals and 18 points on the year. The Cougars were back in the post-season, but had a short return to the playoffs, getting knocked out in five games by the eventual WHL champion Vancouver Giants. But optimism began to swirl around Prince George for the following season, with key pieces in place, with another one to be added early the following season. For the third time in Prince George Cougars history, four Cougars would be selected in the ensuing NHL Entry Draft, with Ty Wishart going to San Jose in the first round, 16th overall. Jesse Dudas and Eric Hunter were both sixth round picks; Dudas selected by Columbus and Hunter to the New York Rangers. Evan Fuller also had his named called at the draft, going in the seventh round to the Vancouver Canucks.

Devin Setoguchi was a tremendous offensive talent for the Saskatoon Blades, who was coming off scoring 36 goals and 83 points in 65 games in 2005-06. In the 2005 NHL draft, the same year Sidney Crosby went to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the San Jose Sharks surprised some by selecting Setoguchi with the 8th overall pick. In the summer of ’06, Setoguchi suffered a knee injury during a training exercise that forced him to miss San Jose Sharks training camp. While at home in Tabor, Alberta, Setoguchi received a call from Saskatoon Blades Head Coach Lorne Molleken that he had been traded to the Prince George Cougars. The price for Setoguchi was a high one, with the Blades getting Stefan Elliott, the Cougars first pick in the 2006 Bantam Draft, and the Cougars first round pick in the 2008 bantam draft. What happened next was worth the price. However, it did not start out so well for the Cougars in the 2006-07 season. On November 2, 2006, with the Cougars off to a 5-8-0-2 record, the Cougars announced Head Coach Mike Vandekamp and Assistant Coach Stewart Malgunas were relieved of their duties, with GM Dallas Thompson taking over as Head Coach for the remainder of the year and the team hiring Drew Schoneck as an Assistant Coach. The Cougars went 28-23-3-3 the rest of the way to finish above .500 at 33-31-3-5, third in the BC Division and a first round match-up with the Kamloops Blazers. Setoguchi led the Cougars in goals with 36 and points with 65. 17-year old Dana Tyrell had a break-out year, posting 30 goals and 56 points to finish second in team scoring and Jared Walker, a pick-up from the Red Deer Rebels the previous season, had 27 goals and 55 points. Real Cyr played 43 games in goal for the Cougars, finishing in the top 10 among league tenders with a 2.66 goals against average and had a save percentage of 90.4%, while finishing the season with a 20-17-1-5 record. The Cougars faced the Blazers in the playoffs for the first time since 1998, when the Cougars erased a 3-1 series deficit to take the clash in seven games. The Blazers finished the season 12 points ahead of Prince George, giving them home ice advantage in the first two games. But the Cougars used some overtime magic to not only steal home-ice advantage away from the Blazers, but head back to Prince George with a commanding 2-0 series lead. Nick Drazenovic played the role of hero in game 1 with the overtime winner in a 3-2 victory to open series, then Setoguchi put the Cougars up 2-0 with the OT winner in game 2. Back in Prince George, the Cougars took another one-goal victory with a come from behind 4-3 decision. Walker and Setoguchi scored 62 seconds apart with less than six minutes to go in the third to pull out the win and 3-0 series lead. The Blazers jumped out to a 3-0 first period lead in game 4, but the Cougars fought back to force a third overtime in the series. Setoguchi tied the game with less than nine minutes to go in regulation and then won the game with his second overtime goal and third straight game winning goal of the series, to put the Cougars into round 2 with a four game sweep of the Blazers.

The top team during the regular season was up next for the Prince George Cougars in the conference semi-final. The Everett Silvertips had a league high 54 wins and 111 points over the 72 game season and took out Portland in six games in the first round. After winning four straight one goal games in round one against Kamloops, the Cougars were on the wrong end of one goal decisions in the first two games of the series with the Silvertips, both by 3-2 scores, with game 2 won in overtime. As if losing the first two games wasn’t enough, Eric Hunter suffered a season ending ankle injury during game 2, leaving the Cougars without the club’s all-time leading scorer to try and get back in the series. Hunter finished his Cougars career with Cougars club records in goals with 111 and points with 233 in 323 career games. The scene shifted north for games 3 and 4 and Walker had a three point night for the Cougars, as they hammered Everett 5-1 to cut the series deficit to 2-1. In game 4, the Silvertips had a 3-2 lead in the third period, but defenceman Ty Wishart tied the game for the Cougars with less than seven minutes to play. Once again, the Cougars were bound for overtime and once again, the Cougars claimed victory. Drazenovic scored at 5:18 to tie the series at two. Back in Everett, the Cougars were in danger of heading home facing elimination, trailing the Silvertips 3-0 through two periods of play. However, Setoguchi, Drazenovic and Chris Durand tied the game with three goals in 8:19 of play in the third period and Durand would get the winning goal with seven and a half minutes to go on the power play to give the Cougars the first road win of the series and a chance to end the year for the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy winners as regular season champions in Prince George in game 6. Turned out to be no contest in the series finale. Drazenovic, Walker, Setoguchi and Greg Gardner had three points each and the Cougars scored three times in both the first and second periods, en route to an 8-3 pounding of Everett and a trip to the final four for the first time since 2000.

In the Western Final, the Cougars squared off with the club that ended their season in 2006, the Vancouver Giants, another 100 point club during the regular season. Unfortunately for the Cougars, the magic began to run out. The Giants won both games at Pacific Coliseum in games 1 and 2 by scores of 3-2 and 6-2, then took a commanding 3-0 series lead with a 4-1 victory at CN Centre in game 3, handing the Cougars their first home ice loss during the 2007 playoffs. But in game 4, the Cougars headed to overtime for the sixth time during the post-season and for the third time, Setoguchi turned out to be the hero, scoring at 3:38 of the first overtime to give the Cougars a 3-2 win. The Cougars went 5-and-1 in overtime play during the 2007 playoffs and were 6-and-1 on home ice during that post season. But the Giants wrapped up the series in game 5 with a 5-1 victory. Vancouver, who lost the WHL final to Medicine Hat in overtime of game 7, returned the favour to the Tigers in the Memorial Cup final in Vancouver, claiming the prize on home ice. For the Cougars, it was a return to playoff success the club had not reached for a number of years, leaving lasting memories for a team that knew rebuilding was in the offing for the near future. The emergence of Tyrell led to his selection in the second round of the NHL entry draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Connolly Era Begins at Bantam Draft, 2007-2009

The WHL Bantam draft took place in April 2007, with the Cougars owning the 10th overall selection. The 1992 born class of players appeared to be a pretty deep field, with the Moose Jaw Warriors selecting Quinton Howden first overall. The Cougars did not have to look very far to make their choice. Brett Connolly was coming through the Prince George Minor Hockey system, poised to play his first season with the Cariboo Cougars of the BC Major Midget Hockey League. The Cougars selected Connolly 10th overall in the bantam draft, a second local product the Cougars had taken in the first round of the Bantam Draft after Nick Drazenovic in 2002. Prior to the season, Drew Schoneck was promoted to the Head Coach position for the Cougars, with the team also bringing on Wade Klippenstein as the team’s new Assistant General Manager and Assistant Coach. Klippenstein had been head coach of the Prince Albert Raiders a few years earlier and Schoneck was his assistant coach with the Raiders. The Cougars brought up a number of ’07 bantam picks to play for the team during the 2007-08 season, with the most exciting debut belonging to Nick Buonassisi, the Cougars 10th pick in the ’07 draft. In just his second WHL game on December 15, 2007, Buonassisi tipped home a point shot that led to his first Western Hockey League goal. The goal just so happened to come on the popular Teddy Bear and Toque Toss game and Buonassisi’s tally put the youngster into Cougars history, adding his name to the list of players that scored the Teddy Bear goal, with fans showering the ice with teddy bear’s and touque, with the donations going to local charities as part of the Cougars annual Christmas campaign. The Cougars finished the season out of the playoff picture, going 20-48-1-3. During the season, the Cougars had traded defenceman Ty Wishart to the Moose Jaw Warriors as part of a multi-player trade. In return, the Cougars got the Warriors first round pick, which ended up being another solid young defenceman, Jesse Forsberg, who the Cougars took with the 11th overall pick.

2008-09 began with a bang for the Cougars, who unveiled a new logo, designed by Mike Doran of Splash Media in Prince George. The logo, on a jersey that would be worn on opening night for the only time that season against the Seattle Thunderbirds, featured a more edgy style and modern Cougar, with an intimidating look over a Prince George Cougars script. Connolly and the Cougars came out flying, with the 16-year old rookie giving Cougars fans a glimpse at what would turn out to be the best rookie season for a Prince George Cougars player. Connolly had a goal and two assists, playing along side Dana Tyrell and the Cougars opened the year by winning six of the first seven games. But the team struggled in October and November, prompting a coaching change. On December 1, 2008, Drew Schoneck was let go and replaced by Assistant Coach Wade Klippenstein on an interim basis. The Cougars would add Jeff Battah as an Assistant Coach later in the month. The Cougars also had the prospect of dealing with life with-out Tyrell, the team Captain and leading scorer following his last game on December 10 before setting out for Ontario to try out for Canada’s World Junior Hockey squad, in search of a fifth consecutive gold medal. Tyrell, who had recently signed a contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning, made Team Canada and prepared for the championship with a couple of pre-tournament games. Disaster struck in one of those games against Sweden, when Tyrell left the game with a season ending knee injury, after posting 19 goals and 40 points in 30 games for the Cougars. The Cougars were also without Connolly at the turn of the calendar, who suited up for Team Pacific at the World Under-17 Challenge in Port Alberni, BC, leading the team is scoring with 8 points in six games and coming home with a silver medal. Import forward Marek Viedensky was also in Ottawa at the World Juniors, skating for Team Slovakia, helping his home country to a fourth place finish. Once they returned, Connolly and Viedensky appeared to be stronger, despite not having Tyrell by their side. Connolly finished the season with 30 goals, the first time a 16-year old in the WHL had reached that total since Patrick Marleau in 1996. Connolly’s 30 goals, 30 assists and 60 points established new Cougars rookie records, earning Connolly not only the team’s Top Rookie Award, but the Cougars MVP, as well. The Cougars got back into the playoffs with a 25-44-0-3 record, finishing eighth in the Western Conference, and setting up another meeting with the Vancouver Giants. The Giants overpowered Prince George in four straight, with the Cougars sporting a line-up full of players taking part in their first ever WHL playoff games. At the end of the season, Connolly not only became the first Cougar to win the Jim Piggott Memorial Trophy as the WHL’s Rookie of the Year, he became the second Cougars player since Dan Hamhuis in 2002 to win at the CHL awards banquet, bringing home the CHL Rookie of the Year honor. Viedensky, meanwhile, was selected in the NHL Entry Draft, chosen by the San Jose Sharks in the seventh round.

New Coach and New Look, 2009-10

In April of 2009, the Cougars and every other team in the WHL were getting set for the annual Bantam Draft. The Cougars were going to have a new man on board at the draft table, as the club announced the hiring of Dean Clark as Head Coach on April 28, 2009. Clark is a proven winner in the WHL, leading the Calgary Hitmen to a league title in 1999 and entering the 2009-10 season among the most victorious coaches in league history with 382 wins under his belt. With that move, Wade Klippenstein was announced as the Cougars new Director of Player Personnel to go along with the Assistant General Manager title. Two days later, the Cougars added to their crop of promising young players, taking defenceman Josh Smith in the first round, 19th overall, scoring whiz Troy Bourke in the second round and defenceman Dane Phaneuf in the third round, the younger brother of Toronto Maple Leafs star blue liner Dion Phaneuf. Brett Connolly was busy on the international scene in the off-season, taking part in Team Canada’s Under-18 program, first at the U-18 World Championship in North Dakota and Minnesota, where Canada finished fourth. Then at the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka tournament in August, where Canada won gold. That tournament was also the scene of Connolly’s start to a long, frustrating year, suffering a hip flexor injury early in the tournament, which resurfaced again in training camp. That hip injury cost Connolly 56 games, but he was still able to produce 19-points in 16 games during the season. Prior to the start of the 2009-10 season, the Cougars and every other CHL club introduced their new Reebok Edge jersey, with the Cougars going through arguably the most dramatic change of any team in the WHL, changing the primary logo that the Cougars had since it moved to CN Centre in 1995 to the current logo, which was unveiled at the start of the 2008-09 season. While the black and red remained on the jersey, the Cougars were going with a brand new look that went over very well with Cougars fans. 20-year old forward Alex Rodgers led the Cougars with 41 assists and 61 points, while James Dobrowolski, a forwarded the Cougars acquired during the off-season, led the Cougars with 23 goals.  Although the Cougars struggled throughout the season to a 12-56-1-3 record, the seeds had been planted with young building blocks for the future.

Success Returns

The start of the 2010-11 season didn't show much promise, with the Cougars dropping three of the first four games of the season.  But the Cougars shook things up to begin October, bringing in 2005 Bantam draft pick Taylor Stefishen up front, who had spent two seasons with the University of Ohio State Buckeyes.  Then the Cougars picked up 20-year old defenceman Sena Acolatse from the Saskatoon Blades and the the wheels began moving in the right direction.  The Cougars were the top scoring Western Conference team for much of the first half, led by a healthy Brett Connolly, who got an invite to Team Canada's World Junior Camp.  Connolly would make the team and head to Buffalo, where he picked up three assists in the tournament and helped Canada to a silver medal showing.  Back at home while Connolly was away, the Cougars were turning heads and were looking down at teams in the standings.  a 6-2 home stand around Christmas saw the Cougars sitting in first place in the BC division for the first time into January.  Veterans such as Acolatse, Stefishen, Charles Inglis, Greg Fraser, Spencer Asuchak and Nick Buonassisi contributed to the Cougars well-balanced success, while rookies such as forward Troy Bourke and defenceman Martin Marincin were giving the Cougars reason to feel optomistic for the near future.  Unfortunately, the club struggled in the second half of the season, but finished the year strong to secure a playoff berth with the seventh seed in the Western Conference.  The Cougars were eliminated by the Kelowna Rockets in four straight, but a quick ending didn't take away from team and individual accomplishments.  The Cougars ended long winning droughts against teams such as the Tri-City Americans, Vancouver Giants, Medicine Hat Tigers and Calgary Hitmen.  The Cougars had three players in the top 10 in WHL rookie scoring; Stefishen, who established a Cougars rookie scoring record with 68 points, Marincin, who smashed Cougars rookie defencemen records with 14 goals and 42 assists for 56 points, and Bourke, whose 42 points is second most by a Cougars 16-year old, only behind Connolly.  Speaking of the Cougars Captain, Connolly became the sixth member of the Cougars 40 goal club, and its youngest, by notching 46, tied for second most in team history.  Connolly's 46 goals in 59 games gave him a goals-per-game average of .780, the highest of any player in the Western Hockey League.  In the summer of 2011, both Connolly and Bourke received Hockey Canada invites; Bourke to the Under-18 team and Connolly with the National Junior Team camp.  Acolatse, meanwhile, became just the fourth Cougars defenceman to record 60 points, with 63 in total.  The Cougars had 10 players with at least 10 goals, marking the first time that had happened since 2004.  The Cougars also had 16 road wins, their most victories away from CN Centre since 2001.

Let the Kids Play

Heading into the 2011-2012 season, the Prince George Cougars had a lot to feel good about. They selected defenceman Jordan Harris of Prince Albert, SK with their first round pick in the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft. General Manager Dallas Thompson then acquired 20-year-old goaltender Drew Owsley from the Tri-City Americans in order to provide some experience and stability in the Cougars goal. Combine that with 2010 first overall draft-pick Alex Forsberg joining a talented group that already included Brett Connolly, Jesse Forsberg, Cody Carlson, Spencer Asuchak and Troy Bourke, and the expectations were high for the Cougars when the puck dropped on September 24 in Kamloops. But early in the season, the Cougars lost forward Charles Inglis to a 10-game suspension, and then learned that Brett Connolly would be staying with the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning instead of being returned to junior. Those key absences forced the Cougars to dress a very young lineup that on many nights included anywhere from six to eight 95-born players. The young Cougars continued to battle and over the course of the season they earned key victories against top teams like the Portland Winterhawks, Tri-City Americans, Edmonton Oil Kings and won three of four meetings with the Spokane Chiefs. Thanks to the brilliant goaltending of team MVP Drew Owsley, strong leadership from their captains (Jesse Forsberg, Dan Gibb, Cody Carlson and Troy Bourke) and the fast development of the young players, the Prince George Cougars managed to keep themselves in the playoff hunt up until the final weekend of the regular season. Second year forward Troy Bourke led the way offensively with 18 goals and 56 points while Prince George Cougars Rookie of the Year Alex Forsberg finished with 40 points in just 51 games. The Cougars had four players (Alex Forsberg, Jordan Tkatch, Jarrett Fontaine and Chase Witala) represent their home province during the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge while 92-born defenceman Martin Marincin represented Slovakia at the World Junior Hockey Championships for a third time. Thanks to some crafty trades with Red Deer, Kelowna and Regina, the Prince George Cougars are well-stocked with draft-picks and are in a strong position to build on an already incredibly bright future heading into 2012-2013.

Holick Era Begins

The 2012 season was one of the busiest in recent memory for Prince George Cougars General Manager Dallas Thompson who made his first big splash at the WHL Bantam Draft in Calgary. First he acquired the second overall pick in the 2012 draft from the Prince Albert Raiders and used the selection to draft forward Jansen Harkins out of North Vancouver. Moments later, the Cougars made another major move when they acquired the seventh overall pick in the 2012 draft, along with Prince George product Jari Erricson. They used the seventh overall selection to pick forward Brad Morrison. Harkins and Morrison are two gifted offensive players who will both be a vital part of this team’s future moving forward.

Another offseason highlight included the signing of forward Zach Pochiro (Las Vegas, NV) who would lead all Cougars rookies with 15 goals and 39 points en route to winning the Prince George Cougars Rookie of the Year Award.

The Cougars final offseason acquisition may have been the most important. On August 3rd, 2012 Dallas Thompson acquired Buffalo Sabres prospect Colin Jacobs from the Seattle Thunderbirds in exchange for Jesse and two 2013 draft picks. Jacobs would go on to reach new season highs in goals (25) and points (53) and was voted the Hubbell Designer Goldsmith’s Player of the Year by the fans. Jacobs was complimented nicely by third year forward Bourke, who was his usual dependable self, leading the Cougars with 35 assists. The Colorado Avalanche prospect earned team MVP honors and his leadership will be greatly counted on as this team forges ahead.

The 2012-2013 regular season kicked off with a bang for the Cougars who started with a 5-1-1 record in their first seven games. Unfortunately the season took a turn for the worse when 20-year-old Captain Brock Hirsche had to retire after suffering his third serious shoulder injury. Prince George’s Daniel Gibb took over the Captaincy in November and would not only set new season highs for goals (five) and points (15), but he was also the only Cougar to play in all 72 games.

Early in 2013 the Cougars decided that a change behind the bench was needed, and on January 23rd, 2013 Mark Holick was hired to replace Dean Clark as Cougars head coach. Under Holick, the Prince George Cougars played with more passion and structure. Colin Jacobs, Zach Pochiro and Troy Bourke all seemed to benefit from the change, as all three were nearly point-per-game players during the final 24 games. The young Cougars kept their playoff hopes alive until the final weekend of the regular season.

Fans got a first-hand glimpse of the bright future as Jansen Harkins, Brad Morrison and goaltender Ty Edmonds made terrific first impressions. Rookie goaltender Brett Zarowny recorded three shutouts, and was also named the Vaughan CHL Goaltender of the Week in mid-December, 2012. Rookie defencemen Marc McNulty, Raymond Grewal and Joseph Carvalho all showed a ton of promise while second-year forward Chase Witala had a 13-point improvement.

With so many promising prospects ready for full-time duty next season, a large group of hungry returning players and a new head coach at the helm, the sky is the limit for the Prince George Cougars heading into 2013-2014 and beyond.