‘Let’s go Cougars!’: Record-setting season has long-suffering Prince George hockey fans believing again

On a Saturday night at the CN Centre, Jessica Speziale sings the national anthem at the final Prince George Cougars game of the regular season.

The Western Hockey League team’s 2017 B.C. Division champions banner is the only one hanging in the rafters after 30 years in the city of roughly 77,000 people.

After the first few lines of O Canada, Speziale points the mic toward the stands, letting the sell-out crowd of 6,000 complete the song before erupting into cheers.

“Insane,” is how Speziale, who also serves as the team’s in-arena host, describes the moment during the team’s regular season finale. “The fans, we were all together … and that’s mind-boggling.”

A woman in a hockey jersey.
Jessica Speziale is the Cougars’ anthem singer and in-arena host tasked with engaging with fans between plays. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Hockey fans cheer for players on the ice.
The Prince George Cougars are celebrating a record-breaking season, finishing first in their division for the first time in the franchise’s 30-year history in the city. (James Doyle/Prince George Cougars)

It was also something for longtime fans to savour. After years of struggles that had some questioning the team’s future in the city, the Cougars won their first WHL Western Conference title and are entering the post-season as the top-rated team in the Canadian Hockey League.

Now, the only question is: How far can they go from here?

From ‘Cougar fever’ to fallow years

The Cougars play in the Western Hockey League, one of three major junior leagues that make up the Canadian Hockey League.

They were founded in 1971 as the Victoria Cougars before moving north to Prince George in the 1994-95 season. 

Five hundred kilometres by air and nearly 800 kilometres by road north of Vancouver, the Cougars are the northernmost and most remote team in the CHL. In a recent podcast interview, Cougars alum and Stanley Cup champion Zdeno Chara described his surprise at having to drive more than eight hours in order to play away games.

The front page of a newspaper with the headline 'Cougar fever grips city'.
A 1997 front page story in the Prince George Citizen describes the city as being in the grips of ‘Cougar fever’ as the team made its first playoff run. (Prince George Newspaper Archives/Prince George Citizen)

The team found early success in Prince George, making it to the division finals by their third season.

Fans responded with enthusiasm. Local newspapers published front page stories about “Cougar fever.” This got the attention of MasterCard, which featured the team and its fans in a 2000 commercial with the tag line: “Being a major league fan of a junior league team: Priceless.”

WATCH | A MasterCard commercial featuring Cougars fans: 

But the good times didn’t last. Starting in 2000, the team spent the next two decades either failing to make the playoffs or exiting in the first round, with the sole exception of a second-round elimination in 2007.

Fans became frustrated. By the team’s 20th anniversary, there were widespread calls for new ownership to take over.

A new hope

Those calls were answered at the start of 2014 when a group of investors, including NHL players and Cougars alumni Dan Hamhuis and Eric Brewer, took control of the team, promising to rebuild the franchise’s relationship with the community.

“We are going to rebuild the atmosphere of the ’90s in this building,” promised the new VP of business Andy Beesley.

LISTEN | A 2014 CBC interview explains fans’ frustrations with Cougars ownership: 

Daybreak North9:24Why do local hockey fans want the Prince George Cougars to be sold?

Rumours are spreading that the WHL team the Prince George Cougars are about to be sold. Though the team’s current owners are denying the sale, a number of people in the city are reacting with excitement. To explain why, former sports reporter Alistair McI

A group of men cut a cake.
A 2014 photo shows several of the new Cougars owners, including former Vancouver Canuck Dan Hamhuis, who played his junior hockey in Prince George. (Prince George Cougars)

The group named fans “The Fifth Line,” started recruiting local entertainers to perform during stoppages in play, and held a number of themed community nights in an attempt to increase attendance.

But getting fans to return was an uphill battle as long as the team continued to lose. Empty seats remained a feature of most games — so much so that Regan Bartel, the play-by-play announcer for the rival Kelowna Rockets, wrote a blog post chastising the city for failing to support its hometown team.

“At one time, the Prince George Cougar fan base was the envy of the league,” he wrote. “The Cougars played to full houses, yet now attendance has dwindled to one of the smallest in the league.”

Rumours of relocation swirled, though owners said they were fully committed to staying in the community.

That future seems more secure now that the team is winning, and more than they ever have before.

A woman smiles in a hockey arena.
Betty-June Gair has been a Cougars season ticket holder ‘since day one.’ Watching this year’s crop of players move to the team to the top of league has been ‘unbelievable,’ she says. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

A hockey players in front of a crowd.
Forward Zak Funk has led the Prince George Cougars to a record-breaking season. The 20-year-old has signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Washington Capitals after finishing the regular season with a franchise-best 123 points and 67 goals. (James Doyle/Prince George Cougars)

A boy surrounded by hockey gear.
Zane Lacere enjoys making noise with the rest of the crowd at Cougars games. ‘Hopefully they win the playoffs,’ he says. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Prince George finished the regular season with a franchise-best 49 wins, earning top spot in the Western Conference for the first time in their 30-year history.

Individual players have set more than a dozen franchise records. Forwards Zac Funk and Riley Heidt both surpassed the franchise record for regular-season points, finishing with 123 and 117 points respectively. The previous record was 112. 

Both have signed entry-level NHL contracts, as has forward Koehn Ziemmer.

“It’s a huge source of pride,” says Speziale. “When the team’s doing bad, we all just kind of do our thing, but when the team is doing well, everyone in the city has a common ground to stand on — and that’s a huge thing.”


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