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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Prince George No Longer Whl West Doormat

The Washington State variety isn’t the only kind of Cougar on the prowl these days.

Like the football Cougars who’ve won three of four games, the hockey Cougars from Prince George, British Columbia are a surprising 3-1 in the Western Hockey League West.

Stuck in last place for seven straight years, the Cougars under first-year coach Stan Butler are finally shaping up as the one club deep enough to challenge the Spokane Chiefs for the West Division championship.

The Chiefs and Cougars meet eight times starting on Nov. 20. By February that rivalry may for the first time have championship implications.

OK, so it’s a little early to start linking championships to Prince George but maybe it is time to take this club seriously.

The telling differences are balance and defense, the staples Mike Babcock has in place in Spokane. Prince George goaltender Tyler Love faced an incredible 75 shots - roughly a week’s worth of shots in Spokane - in one night in the Arena last season.

This season, in three games, Love has had only 93 shots.

The Cougars have the intimidating presence of 6-9 Slovakian Zdeno Chara, a 19-year-old defenseman who knocked out Portland’s Joey Tetarenko Friday night, opening up two cuts that took 24 stitches to close.

The cut left Tetarenko’s eye swollen shut and kept him out of the lineup the next night.

Prince George broadcaster Glen Dufresne said Chara - a third-round pick of the New York Islanders - also knocked out Seattle’s Shane Belter. The following night, Seattle veteran Paul Ferone took on Chara 18 seconds into the game and came out with a draw, Dufrense said.

The damage the huge blueliner is doing on the scoreboard - two goals, four assists - is equally impressive.

Ten players already have a goal for Prince George, including the year’s early surprise, 16-year-old center Blair Betts. Passed over in the bantam draft, Betts has two goals and an assist with the Cougars’ third line.

It’s about time. The Cougars lead the league in first-pick busts out of the bantam draft. Martin Hohenberger, traded to Lethbridge, comes to mind. One top draft choice who is panning out in Prince George is Jarret Smith, who broke a knuckle in training camp, but recovered in time to score three goals in the Friday night win over Portland.

Around the league …

One condition of the trade that sent then-Chiefs captain Bryan McCabe to the Brandon Wheat Kings two years ago kicked in when defenseman Adam Magarrell returned to Spokane for his over-age season. The two clubs agreed that if Magarrell played junior hockey at 20, the Chiefs would fork over a second-round pick to Brandon in the ‘97 draft. General manager Tim Speltz said, “I don’t like giving up the draft pick but at the same time I’d much rather have Adam Magarrell than a second-round choice in the bantam draft.” … Six clubs including the Chiefs are expected to pitch for the ‘98 Memorial Cup when WHL owners meet on Nov. 18 in Calgary. Besides Spokane - the early favorite - Lethbridge, Red Deer, Regina, Portland and Kelowna are bidding for junior hockey’s championship event … The Memorial Cup next May is in Hull, Quebec … … Portland tough guy Kevin Popp, the former Chief, returned from Buffalo’s AHL affiliate in Rochester, giving the Winter Hawks one 20-year-old …

, DataTimes

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