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Cougars back in town

Coach Matt Samson hopes to keep most of team intact through league changes

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The Squamish Cougars and the fledgling World Hockey Association (WHA) survived their first season, and are preparing for their second season as an organized league — an alternative to the strict junior hockey systems that WHA founders believed were leaving too many players behind.

According to Matt Samson, head coach of the Cougars and a scout for the WHA, most of the details are in place.

“We’re full steam ahead for next year,” he said. “We’ve got all the ice time booked, and we’re in the process of finalizing our contract to use the arena this year.

“Most of our guys will be back, it’s looking like, and a lot of our key guys. Troy McLean from Whistler is too old to play, but we’re looking to get the ages raised so that each team can have two players that are six months older on the roster. The idea is that older kids that can’t get into Junior A, maybe they got a late start in hockey, but they want to pursue going to school in Canada and the U.S. to play university hockey.

“I know that’s what Troy is looking to do, and we’re pretty excited that we might have him back. I think a lot of schools that I’ve talked to in the U.S. are interested, and there are lots of opportunities for Troy — and a lot of our guys — to keep playing.”

Last year McLean was the captain and top scorer for the Cougars with 53 points in 34 games. The Cougars finished third out of six teams after a slow start, and were on pace to qualify for the finals when league financial troubles forced the WHA to start the playoffs early with only the top two teams.

To date it appears that all six teams will be returning for the 2006-07 season, although the Osoyoos Spurs still have to meet a set of preconditions imposed by Osoyoos council after the league missed payments for the arena last season. That money has been paid, but the town would not rent the Spurs ice time for the coming season without assurances that all of their bills are paid in Osoyoos, including an advance payment for arena time.

A seventh team will be added from Vancouver, Washington, and the league is reportedly looking at adding possible franchises in Oregon and Alberta.

The league also has legal issues to navigate coming into the season, including the ongoing battle and war of words with Vancouver-based Global Developments Inc.

Global Developments is suing the WHA for mismanagement and illegal financial activities, also alleging that the WHA has not paid its bus charter company, billeting fees for players, traveling expenses for road trips and salaries for coaches.

For its part the WHA has denied those allegations and is counter-suing Global Developments and others for breaches of securities laws, fraud, conspiracy, and other infractions. Among other things, they accuse Global Developments of manipulating their stock price.

In a recent interview, WHA CEO Ricky Smith suggested that the countersuit could result in damages around $100 million.

According to Samson, the league is taking a few steps to improve finances this year. One step is to charge the players at least $1,500 for ice time.

“Last year they didn’t pay anything, but this year we needed to charge players. We don’t have a figure yet, but it will be in the ballpark of $1,500 to $2,500. That’s still half of what they would pay to play Major Midget hockey, and still a good deal for what we feel they’re getting. The players are on ice six times a week, so that adds up. We’ve talked to a lot of the kids, and most of them have said that’s fair to make sure we have the money to make the season work.”

The league will also be financed by ticket sales to games, sponsorships, and extras like shirt sales.

The WHA is hosting a series of tryouts this summer, with the goal of getting the league underway sometime in September. There is a camp in Denver from Aug. 10 to 11, followed by a camp in Oliver from Sept. 16 to 18. Any players 16 to 18 that are looking to play post-midget hockey or missed selection from Junior A and Junior B teams are encouraged to attend that camp. Samson also says a camp will likely be held in Squamish at the beginning of September for local skaters.

Samson says he is not sure how the new eastern WHA league will work, and whether the playoffs will end with the top teams from the east and west facing off. “My job is to identify the kids who want to play, and get them a tryout,” he said.

If you’re interested in playing, contact Samson at cougarscoach@officialwha.com .

Samson is also interested in talking to people who would like to volunteer to help the team this year, as well as billet players from outside the community.

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