First Visit: September 22, 2023
CHL Arena: 73
WHL Arena: 17
No other city in the CHL is as isolated as Prince George, BC. Few in the history of the CHL come close, either. The legendarily isolated Flin Flon Bombers had a four and a half hour drive to Prince Albert as their closest road game; the St. John's Fog Devils were far more distant but only travelled by air. Only the Billings Bighorns, with their five and a half hour drive to Swift Current as their closest road game, comes close to PG, but the Bighorns also only lasted a few years, while the Cougars were celebrating their thirtieth anniversary as of the 2023-24 season when I finally went there. The Cougars' closest road game is Kamloops, 521 km of winding mountain roads away, and one can really understand why the team for many years had a sleeper bus for their players' use.
My travelling companion Steve and I elected to visit Prince George via a ULCC flight to Edmonton, a mere seven and a half hours away. The flight from Ontario may have been cheap, but from Edmonton the next day, our drive started before sunrise as our bodies adjusted to the time change. The drive is three hours of flat forests followed by the spectacular drive through the Yellowhead Pass and Jasper National Park. After a stop at Mount Robson on a beautiful fall day, we carried on through McBride and its ominous "no fuel next 204 km" sign, before spending the final hours of the journey in splendid isolation. When you finally reach Prince George after a full day's travel, the wonder is that it even exists at all. 90,000 people live in this remote part of northern BC, drawn in by the lumber, pulp and paper, oil and gas, and railroad industries. It's not the prettiest town, but stretching my legs when I finally hopped out gave me a sense of accomplishment that a short car ride to Kitchener never will. We're actually here.
The CN Centre, formerly the Prince George Multiplex, opened in 1995 at the start of the second season the Cougars spent in town following their sudden move from Victoria. It sits on parkland in the southwest of the city, with a tree-lined ridge behind the building and lots of parking on-site. It reminded me of a more tastefully-decorated version of Regina's Agridome, all yellow brick and a massive soft green roof that blends well into the natural setting. A second ice pad also lies behind the rink to the northwest.
The main entrance sits in the corner of the building, flanked by ticket booths and a small lobby that opens into the concourse. There are massive picture windows running down the sides of the concourse, which for an early season game means everything is brightly lit. Between that, the natural yellow stone and brick and the green paint everywhere, the overall impression is welcoming. The team has banners hanging throughout the concourse of Cougar alumni who have played in the NHL, and I was pleased to see how much team history abounds. The only minor complaint about the concourse I had was the team store - it was so small that the cashier was set up in the concourse outside the shop itself, and the Cougars' selection of goods was about as basic as you'll see in 2023. With so much concourse space available, I'm surprised there isn't at least one auxiliary souvenir stand on the other side of the building somewhere.
The seating bowl itself is impressive. 6,000 green seats surround the ice, with a relatively steep pitch of the seats by 1990's standards. Yes, to some extent it's a clone rink, similar to larger WHL buildings in Victoria, Kelowna and Seattle, but during the game we saw we moved around a fair bit and didn't find a single bad view of the ice. There are suites running down one side of the ice and a press box on the other side, standing room at the top of the bowl, a decent video scoreboard; the usual things you'd expect from even a junior team in this day and age. The sound system is fine. The rink has been maintained well enough that you'd never guess, from that perspective, that it was nearly 30 years old.
What would make you guess the age, though, was my single biggest minor issue with the CN Centre, and that is the hopelessly dated colour scheme. Hunter green and burgundy accents are everywhere, from the seats to the rafters to the doors to plumbing and electrical lines in the rafters. It screams mid-to-late 90's, and the reason why they made the entire building those colours when the Cougars are neither is anyone's guess. I suppose it was trendy at one point, but today it's almost laughable. Team colours are timeless, whereas chasing trends is a fool's errand for a building as difficult and expensive to repaint as an arena would be. I'd love to see the CN Centre decked out in black seats with red trim everywhere, but I'd imagine the hunter green and burgundy will remain for long into the future.
A few other things to mention that I found noteworthy about the CN Centre experience. The team has a sponsored radio-controlled blimp flying around at intermissions, but the blimp pilot in PG is an acrobat worthy of flying with the Snowbirds. The blimp did tricks in the air, barrel rolls and flips, and occasionally booped unsuspecting kids on the back of the head while flying around. It was hilarious to see what he'd do next! The train theme from the sponsor CN also carries throughout the building, with both Zambonis painted to look like locomotives. One is black and orange in the current CN livery, while the other has a steam engine design with one single headlight and a smokestack that emits steam with realistic chuffing noises. It's always great to see a strange idea carried to its logical conclusion, and I loved PG's train Zambonis very much.
As far as atmosphere goes, I was pleasantly surprised. I'd heard for years how the Cougars were cursed with small, quiet crowds - even the person we talked to at the Coliseum earlier that day was trying to sway us to come back to see the BCHL's Spruce Kings, telling us "the Cougars games are like sitting in a library." Maybe it was because it was the home opener, maybe it was low expectations being exceeded, but I thought the crowd in PG was perfectly respectable and into the game. The Cougars won a 9-0 laugher but the crowd remained into the game throughout, knowledgeable, friendly, and loud... enough.
Steve and I have talked in the past about how for us, the OHL is easy mode, the QMJHL is intermediate mode and the WHL is hard mode. I never expected to be sitting at 17/22 WHL arenas in the fall of 2023, but the rise of ultra low cost carrier flights in Canada has made it a lot easier to justify spending a weekend to go see some WHL action. But I still never imagined I'd ever get to Prince George. Few do. Its isolation makes it the hardest of the hard, the most hardcore vacation destination in the CHL. I can finally say I've been, and it's a good thing the CN Centre is in such good shape, because - nothing personal, PG - I'm never going back. My once-in-a-lifetime adventure to northern BC was more than worth it, and I'd recommend the trip to any CHL fan out there as hardcore as yours truly.