By Andrew Mitchell
The Squamish Cougars have overcome an extremely slow start to the season, climbing from the cellar into third place in just over six weeks. With nine weeks remaining — and a favourable schedule — the Cougars have a goal of finishing the regular season in second to guarantee home ice advantage for the playoffs.
“We’re only going to see (top-ranked) New Westminster two more times and (second place) Lumby two more times. As long as we keep winning there’s no reason why we can’t finish second,” said head coach Matt Samson.
“I think we’re gelling well as a team, we’ve got all four lines going right now, and our goaltending has been very solid since the beginning of November. We keep getting better every day, and we’re all working towards the same goal.”
Heading into last weekend Cougars had 36 points, while Lumby and New Westminster are tied for first with 39 points each. If either Westminster or Lumby lose two more games than Squamish in the next eight weeks, Squamish will have home ice advantage.
Spending some time in last place and struggling offensively was good for the team in some ways, Samson acknowledges. It forced the team to constantly make adjustments and changes to the lineups, and gave the players an underdog mentality that is paying off.
“You never want to start a season at one and six, but when we started to make some changes the guys realized that they had to step up their games. A few players may have taken the league a little lightly at the beginning of the year, but for whatever reasons we’ve started to flow a lot better. We’ve got a good group of guys who are ready to go every night.”
A key component of the Squamish Cougars offense is Whistler’s Troy McLean, who made the move to the Cougars to be closer to home after playing in Edmonton and Vancouver Island. McLean has 49 points in 32 games, including 21 goals.
“McLean is our leading scorer right now, and in the last four wins he scored the game winner in all of them, as well as an overtime goal against Osoyoos last Sunday,” said Samson. “He’s 20 so this is his last year, and he really wants to win and win the championship before he moves on. He’s the leader, and has really stepped up for us.”
According to Samson scouts from Junior A, WHL, and colleges and universities have been to games and have spoken to him about several players. “A lot of the guys will get offers next year that they’ll want to move on, that’s for sure,” he said.
In terms of fan support, Samson says the team has been getting over 300 spectators for every game at Brennan Park. Recently the weather has been an issue on game nights, with snowstorms keeping people at home.
“Last week the stands looked pretty empty, but by second period the place started filling up. Hopefully the worst weather is behind us,” he said. “We want to get more people out, but this is the league’s first year and the weather hasn’t made it that easy so I’d say we still have (had) some pretty good crowds.”
The travel schedule is also helping the Cougars, who will spend less time on the road towards the end of the season and will have longer recovery periods between road trips. Early in the season the players would have to bus all night, get a few hours sleep, and play that evening.
This is the first year for the WHA, a league administered by hockey legend Bobby Hull and that is traded publicly on the stock market. Because all teams are centrally owned no team has any advantage when it comes to budgeting, however the teams are autonomous when it comes to recruiting and coaching players. The age range is between 16 and 20, and players come from just about everywhere, from house leagues to Junior A and Junior B programs.
Next year the WHA is planning a six-team league for eastern Canada, and is looking at expansion in the west.
This Friday the Cougars are hosting the Belingham Bulls at 7:30p.m., Brennan Park Sports Centre, before heading to Bellingham for the second part of the home and away series. Tickets are $8, and seats are first come, first served so get there early.