The Prince George Cougars are one full season into their “New Ice Age”, the marketing slogan the organization created when the current ownership group took the reigns before the 2014-15 WHL season.
Junior hockey fans in British Columbia’s northern capital have shown their enthusiasm, almost doubling the average attendance per game as the Cougars qualified for postseason play. But in Year Two, expectations in Prince George are much higher after last season’s first round exit.
Veteran WHL head coach Mark Holick is back, now in his third full season herding the Cats. His key young players have grown through another season of WHL experience. The current lineup boasts the best goaltending tandem Holick has seen in years, with veterans Mack Shields and Ty Edmonds between the pipes. The roster also includes four players drafted by NHL teams, including Jansen Harkins (WPG), Brad Morrison (NYR), Sam Ruopp (CBJ) and Tate Olson (VAN).
During the offseason, the Cougars added another drafted junior, Jesse Gabrielle (BOS), who came over in a deal with the Regina Pats.
Holick likes what he has seen so far from Gabrielle, as Prince George moves toward the WHL schedule’s quarter pole.
“I’m very happy so far,” Holick said in an interview with Hockey’s Future following the Cougars 3-1 victory in Vancouver over the Giants. “I really like Jesse. I like him as a person and I like him as a player. He plays real close to that line, and sometimes he maybe slips over it.
“He’s the type of guy who has to play that way, play with an edge and so far, he has been awesome for us. He’s got good size and he can handle himself. He’s not afraid to drop the gloves if he needs to. He provides energy for us when he’s out on the ice. And he’s got nine goals for us.”
Indeed, Gabrielle has burst out of the gate this season, scoring 11 goals and four assists in 14 games, to go along with a +5 rating. The early season numbers provoked a tongue-in-cheek attempt at humor from your scribe, who suggested to Holick that it looks like Gabrielle isn’t much of a playmaker.
“Yeh,” Holick laughed, “kinda looks like a Cy Young winner!”
Of his 11 tallies so far, Gabrielle has scored shorthanded four times and twice on the power play. Two of his goals have been game winners.
“I was kind of shocked we could make that trade for one of our list players,” Holick said. “I’ve played him in every situation, power play, penalty kill. I think he leads the league in shorthanded goals. Jesse’s a guy that I’ll play in the last minute of a game. He’s a guy who has earned that trust so far, for sure.”
New kid in town
In September, Gabrielle arrived in Prince George after a busy summer following the 2015 NHL Draft. The Boston Bruins made the Moosimin, Saskatchewan native their fourth round pick, 105th overall. Following the Bruins’ summer development camp while he was still a member of the Pats, Gabrielle was moved to the Cougars.
Suffice it to say that in his short life, Gabrielle has been around in hockey circles.
“I was born in Edmonton and we moved to Moosimin when I was about two years old,” Gabrielle said, when asked for a rundown of his personal hockey road map. “We were there until I was 12, then it was off to the suburbs of Minneapolis until I was 15. Then I went to Brandon for my 16-year-old year.”
Ostensibly, the move to Minnesota related to Gabrielle’s mother attending school, but hockey was always a big part of the program, too.
“During my second year of peewee hockey, I played AAA during the summer,” Gabrielle said. “I played bantam hockey in Maple Grove, Minnesota. That was during my WHL draft year. During my 15-year-old year, we moved and I played my ninth grade year in high school.”
With all of the activity in Minnesota over the years, one has to wonder about the pull of high school hockey in the United States, and also, opportunities in the NCAA.
“In minor hockey, at a young age, I don’t even think schools can officially talk to you,” Gabrielle said. “When we went to Minnesota, the end goal was to get drafted into the WHL and make a team during my 16-year-old year.
“Lots of the guys down there wondered why I wanted to go to the WHL. I don’t think they were as educated on what the WHL was and is. Some of them kind of made me feel almost wrong for wanting to be up there. But I knew what I wanted. I knew what the best path would be for me.
“We always knew I’d come back and play in the WHL.”
The 2012 WHL Bantam Draft
Stories abound across the WHL from players who clearly recall exactly where they were when their names were called at the WHL Bantam Draft. From attending the festivities to keeping an eye on their cell phones while at school, draft-eligible players certainly know when the big day arrives. For Gabrielle, it seems the first call he took on Draft Day may have come from a pizza delivery guy.
“I was just at home with my dad in Minneapolis,” Gabrielle said. “I think my mom was in school or at work. Dad and I sat around the computer and about three rounds into the draft, I quit watching it. We’d actually ordered a pizza.
“About the middle of the fourth round, I remember looking at the computer and didn’t see my name. Then I ran up to the door to get the pizza. When I went back downstairs a while later, my name was there, 100th overall to Brandon.
“So, just hanging out there with my dad, we were pretty happy. But I knew there was still a lot of work to do.”
The city of Brandon is located about a 90-minute drive from Moosimin, so it was territory the Gabrielle family was familiar with. As a 15-year-old, checking in to the Wheat Kings’ rookie camp at 5’9 and 184 pounds, the feisty forward was determined to make an impression.
“I went in as a 15-year-old year and fought a guy from Kelowna, a guy that was my age and drafted in the second round ahead of me,” Gabrielle said. “He was a bigger kid and I felt like I beat him up pretty good. It seemed to get me noticed and I think the team knew I was committed. They seemed to like that. That must have helped me out.”
Since then, Gabrielle has grown into an even more imposing presence.
“I suppose I go about 6’, 200 pounds,” Gabrielle said. “Let’s say in the morning its 200 pounds, then at night it’s 205. I think I’d like to stay around 205.”
The early ‘Dub years
Gabrielle appeared in two games as a 15-year-old and continued to hope he had done enough to keep the Wheat Kings motivated to include him on the roster as a 16-year-old. When the 2013-14 season arrived, Brandon was in the midst of a rebuild that looked to be on a rather fast track with a host of early draft picks coming down the pike after some big-time trade deadline deals.
According to Gabrielle, it was he and Braylon Shmyr from Calgary, the two 1997-born players that cracked the lineup to start the season.
“They had a lot of depth at the 1996 level,” Gabrielle said. “During my 16-year-old year, there were only a couple of us 1997’s. It was pretty tough to go in there. I wasn’t sure I could go in there and make the team as a 16-year-old.
“It was a big development year for me, just the tempo of the game and being there every game to learn. Then I got to play with Jayce Hawryluk (FLA) and Peter Quenneville (CBJ) for awhile. We had a pretty good run in the playoffs.”
Brandon made its way into the postseason and upset the Regina Pats in the first round, a four-game sweep, before being dispatched in five games by the eventual WHL champions, the Edmonton Oil Kings.
Fast forward a year later and things had changed for Gabrielle. Near the 2014-15 trade deadline, he was dealt to the Pats in a trade that included high-scoring Morgan Klimchuk (CGY) moving over to Brandon. The Wheaties were loading up, and perhaps unloading as well.
“Back to my home province, close enough that family could come and watch,” Gabrielle said. “I thought it would be a pretty good trade. In Regina, we were almost in the same situation as in Brandon the year before.
“We were a young team in Regina that maybe wasn’t supposed to make it out of the first round. Then we swept Swift Current. But, then we lost to Brandon, the team that went to the league finals. Those were good experiences and fun to be part of. I hope we can go further than the second round in PG this year. It was good to get that playoff experience from both teams.”
Next came the 2015 NHL Draft, where the Boston Bruins came calling in the fourth round. Things were looking up, but then a few weeks later, he was shipped out of Regina.
“There ended up being some rumors that were actually pretty outrageous, weren’t true,” Gabrielle said. “I found out you can’t really control what people say.”
A fresh start
When a player is 150 games into his WHL career and skating with his third team, there is bound to be the odd whisper about performance, or other potential issues.
“I’ve told him he’s got a clean slate here,” Holick said. “But I also told him he might be running out of chances. We’re his third team and he’s an 18-year-old.”
The trust Holick spoke about has paid off early, as Gabrielle has been among the top performers in the entire league so far. In fact, on October 27th, he was recognized as the WHL Player of the Week after collecting seven points in four games. The Cougars won three of those four and the gritty 18-year-old continues to diligently go about his business, establishing himself as a capable power forward.
“I try not to think about it all,” he said. “I just embrace the new start here. It’s great to be here and get used to everybody here. I like it here. The guys are good team guys. We’re a big, tough team and we like to play hard. That fits into my style of hockey. I think there is some good chemistry here and our special teams can be real good.
“I like to think that my teammates here, and even back in Brandon and Regina, would vouch that I’m a good character guy, a team guy. It’s just about making a good first impression and I am trying to fill a leadership role here. I want to make sure I’m a solid, positive guy among the top six or top three forwards.”
While it’s still early in the season for Gabrielle and the Cougars, especially in terms of exposure to the entire group of B.C. and U.S. Division teams, he was fine with a query about any subtle or obvious differences between the WHL’s Eastern and Western Conferences.
“I’ve only played a handful of teams here so far,” Gabrielle said. “But I’d say some teams in the East might have more of that Saskatchewan/Manitoba farm boy type, the kind of guys that can be really hard to play against. Some of the Alberta/B.C. guys might play with a little more finesse at times. So far though, it’s been a pretty healthy balance.
“Right now for me, I’m more focused on making sure that we are a hard team to play against. It’s kind of a feeling out process for me in the Western Conference.”
The NHL experience
In past years, Gabrielle has been asked about a favorite NHL team. His candid reply has been, “the Boston Bruins”.
“When teams are talking to you, and then Central Scouting asks questions, you just have to be honest with them,” Gabrielle said. “I really felt the Bruins were a favorite of mine. I liked the way they have always played, kind of a heavy game, just real tough to play against. Guys like Milan Lucic and even Brad Marchand, kind of a pest. It was a huge honor just to be drafted and hopefully I’ll play there in Boston one day.”
Gabrielle enjoyed his summer, attending the Bruins’ camps.
“There was a developmental camp in July and it was a real good experience,” he said. “The management and staff around the rink were super nice to all of the guys and made it a real good experience for all of us. It’s your first taste of NHL camp and the way they handled us was really first class.
“Then I was back there for rookie camp and they kept me for a bit of the main camp. It was fun to soak it all in, with guys like Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara. It’s so important to be kind of a student of the game.
“I’ll be a lot better prepared next time I try to crack the Bruins lineup.”
Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51