Eric Brewer and Dan Hamhuis are old hands at the NHL game. Both are veteran defenseman out of British Columbia and both played their junior hockey with the Prince George Cougars. Now, as part of a new ownership group, Brewer and Hamhuis are hoping to help their old Western League team out of the doldrums and back to glory.
"It's a city where the team and the organization has room for improvement," Brewer said. "We want to re-establish the team."
Indeed, it's been years since the Cougars made the playoffs and that's pretty poor, considering only six squads in the 22-team circuit miss out each season. While Prince George has not been completely devoid of talent, the high end hasn't been there too often. In a cruel twist of fate, the best Cougar in recent years was Brett Connolly, drafted sixth overall by the Lightning in 2010. But Connolly missed all but 16 games in his draft year due to a hip injury and his 59 games of service a year later (out of a possible 72) still wasn't enough to push the Cougars through to the playoffs.
Prince George had the top pick in the 2009 bantam draft, selecting Alex Forsberg. He never blossomed into a star and was recently traded to Saskatoon. The second overall pick in that draft? Curtis Lazar, the Ottawa Senators first-rounder who may hit the NHL as soon as this year after helping Edmonton win the 2014 Memorial Cup.
But it's more than just luck that has Prince George down. The small-town northern market isn't a huge destination for talent right now and had just one American on the roster in Zach Pochiro last year. He was also one of the only NHL draft picks on the squad (St. Louis, 112th overall in 2013). In order to keep up with the Edmontons and Portlands of the league, the Cougars need help and having two NHL ambassadors can't hurt.
"Having both of us play there helps," Brewer said. "At some point we'll be able to answer questions for families, but we're not going to be door-to-door salesmen."
Indeed, Brewer and Hamhuis have only begun to get their teeth into their new investment and since they're both still viable NHLers, seeing the team live during the season will be virtually impossible. But having that name recognition will be a bonus for the squad, especially since the Cougars had the worst attendance in the league last season.
Winning will help solve that and having new ownership blood with a stake in the matter is also good. Brewer's in-laws still live in Prince George and that's where his wife is from originally.
"It's an opportunity that doesn't come along very often," he said. "I was lucky to be presented with it and there's a lot to like."
In the meantime, the Cougars have a pretty good prospect for the 2015 NHL draft in Jansen Harkins, who just helped Canada win gold at the Ivan Hlinka tournament. If he can have a big year, Brewer and Hamhuis will have one more reason to get fans back in the stands.
Edited to reflect that Alex Forsberg was traded to Saskatoon.