Tryouts are over, practices are underway, and Friday, Sept. 28 the puck drops for the Squamish Cougars of the World Hockey Association (WHA) at Brennan Park Sports Centre.
Whistler’s Troy McLean will once again be leading the team, after rule changes were made in the off-season that allow teams to carry two 21-year-olds on their rosters. Another Whistler player, Aaron Oberson, also made the team and will help fill out the Cougars’ defensive core.
According to Matt Samson, the bulk of the team is returning from last season, where the Cougars placed third out of the six teams in the league. This year there are seven teams in the WHA’s Western Junior Hockey League, including the Barrhead River Kings from Alberta, and the Fort Vancouver Pioneers of Vancouver, Washington.
The Cougars’ first two games are against the Armstrong Sharks, including a second game in Lillooet on Saturday. The following week they will meet up with the Pioneers, a Junior B team that was ranked fifth in the U.S. last year.
Samson says the team is confident.
“I’d say we’re already doing well, we’ve got a good core of returning players, and some good new guys to fill in the spots where we lost players,” he said. “The training camp went well. We have pretty much a full roster right now and we’re excited to get going.”
The Cougars got off to a slow start last season and had a losing record until they turned things around in the New Year and played their way to third place. They were hoping to finish in second place when the season was cut short by administrative issues within the league.
This is the second year for both the league and the franchise, and the experiment has not been without its growing pains. The WHA, which is a publicly traded entity that owns and manages all teams, is currently embroiled in a legal battle with a Vancouver company and has had to adjust its business model to ensure a second season.
Some of those changes include charging players league fees, which Samson says are still subsidized by the league to be far lower than other options for players coming out of house leagues.
He says the league has also worked on the schedule to optimize travel times. For example, when the Cougars head to the Interior to play Armstrong, the league will either make it a double-header or schedule another away game against nearby Lumby.
The league also plans to launch a new website in the next few weeks that includes the schedule, box scores, and player statistics.
As well, the league will be launching an eastern division in the next few weeks that is expected to have seven teams.
The western league gained two new teams this year, but lost one franchise when the Bellingham Bulls folded.
The central goal for the league is to provide an alternative to the current junior system, giving talented players outside the Junior A and Junior B leagues an opportunity to play a similar level of hockey. Junior A and Junior B franchises are also hard to come by for smaller towns and expansion has all but stalled.
Players can be anywhere from 16 to 20, and each team now gets two players that are 21. Because all of the teams are owned by the league, it also creates a level playing field for independent teams that have similar budgets but are responsible for recruiting and coaching their own players.
The puck drops on Friday’s season opener at 7 p.m. Tickets are $8.60 for adults, and discounted tickets are available for fans 17 and under.