by JIM SWANSON
Citizen Sports Editor
Mark this day down — the Prince George Cougars lured a player north, away from the so-called college route.
Usually, it seems, players head the other way. Screaming.
Right-shooting defenceman Matt Cumming, 16, will arrive today and start his WHL career. The team’s 10th-round choice in the 2006 bantam draft played 20 games for the Vernon Vipers of the BCHL with one assist and 21 penalty minutes. A season ago, playing major midget for the Thompson Blazers, the Kamloops product had three goals, 13 points and 56 penalty minutes in 39 games.
Cumming did not come to camp with the Cougars in August, informing the team he was going to play in Vernon and pursue a scholarship. An overhaul of the Vipers coaching staff was, in part, enough to get him to consider a different path. Cumming was scratched from the lineup his last five games with Vernon.
He may be in the lineup tonight when the Cougars play host to the Vancouver Giants, 7 p.m. at CN Centre.
“I was an (affiliated player) with the Vipers last year for five games, and they said they were willing to commit to me if I committed to the BCHL for a year or two,” said Cumming, who spent a few days last spring hanging out with the Cougars in Kamloops during the first-round playoff series.
“A lot of things changed with the new coaching staff, and (the Cougars) offered me a spot in Prince George. I want to be a pro hockey player, and what player doesn’t want to play at the highest level possible.”
Cumming was in camp with the Cougars when he was 15, checking in at five-foot-eight and 154 pounds. He’s added two inches of height and now weighs 170 pounds, and is glad to be joining up with the current 16-year-old Cougars, Ryan Kowalksi and Art Bidlevskii, who Cumming knows well from the provincial team program.
“They’re friends of mine, so that part should be fun,” said Cumming, whose dad Lorne is a Vancouver Giants scout who now coaches Chase in the junior B Kootenay International loop.
“One of them brought it up (over the internet) a few days ago, but I didn’t say anything. Kept it a surprise.”
When the Cougars drafted Cumming, general manager Dallas Thompson described him this way: “He’s a smaller guy, but he’s a competitor who doesn’t shy away from anything despite his size.”
That description holds true now, said Thompson.
“He’s a smaller defenceman, but with the way the league has been going those smaller guys who can move the puck can have success,” said the general manager, who has been working to get players from the most recent draft to commit to the WHL.
“He’s got a bit of an edge to him, which you have to have. Matt’s a mature kid and comes from a good family. He didn’t come to camp this year and obviously there was some discussion as to what direction his hockey career was going to take. We’re happy we drafted him, he had a good camp as a 15-year-old, and we’ve kept close track of him since then.”
Cumming’s addition brings the roster to 25 players. Don’t expect it to stay there long.
“There’s no doubt we have a little bit of a logjam right now,” said Thompson.
“If you want to be in the lineup, you’re going to have to be performing. We brought a 16-year-old in, and it’s not to have him sit in the stands, it’s to have him be in a similar place to what Bidlevskii is. The 25 guys, it won’t be that way for long.”
Pressed on that, Thompson said no trades are imminent, so the assumption is some players are facing demotion or release.
The Cumming addition makes this inexperienced Cougars team a little younger, the proper direction to go with a franchise in the throes of rebuilding, and losers of nine of their last 10 games.
Thompson looks at the standings and nearly goes into convulsions when he sees his team has allowed a WHL-worst 115 goals — that with a veteran defence group and two experienced goaltenders. The expansion Edmonton Oil Kings have the only other triple-digit statistic (104 goals against).
“We have one 20-year-old defenceman, and three 19-year-olds,” said Thompson. “We have a lot of forwards who are in their first year in the league. A lot of those goals have come at home, and that has to change. It involves the forwards helping out, but it starts with the goaltender and goes from there. We have to continue to get better and bring that number down.
“I don’t give anybody a break because we’ve talked about team defence. We have to be better at penalty killing, be more committed to getting in the way of shots. The goaltender is also the last line of defence, and everyone can see what the numbers are there.”
PRINCE GEORGE — Don’t believe the pocket schedule, Meet The Pack Night is tonight, not Friday, the change announced a few weeks ago when the WHL didn’t like the travel demands on both teams and Sportsnet gave the head office permission to change... Sorry, all Meet the Pack promotion tickets are gone, you’ll have to go to Ticketmaster now. The Citizen gave away 1,000 tickets to subscribers and carriers... At least the losing streak is over. The Cougars, who sit five points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference, snapped a nine-game slide last Saturday by beating Kelowna 4-3. Tommy Tartaglione was the winning goalie, just as he was on Oct. 29 when the Cougars blanked the Giants 3-0 at CN Centre in what qualifies as Prince George’s best game this season. Expect Tartaglione to be the guy tonight, too... D Jesse Dudas (leg) is probable; LW Evan Fuller (groin) is out, so is RW Dale Hunt (hand)... The negative lens has focused on the penalty killing — a league-worst 71.7 per cent — but the power play is humming along at 21.3 per cent, fifth overall... Five people involved in this game tonight were in Cranbrook Wednesday for the WHL-Russia ADT Challenge game — Ty Wishart and Dana Tyrell of the Cats, and Tyson Sexsmith, Spencer Machacek and coach Don Hay of the Giants.
VANCOUVER — Broken record time — the defending Memorial Cup champs are first in the B.C. Division, seven points up on Kelowna and 10 ahead of Chilliwack. The Cougars are 19 points back of the Giants... The Giants make their second stop of the season at CN Centre. So far this season, the Giants are 1-1 against the Cats, the win coming at the Pacific Coliseum by a 7-4 score. Prince George D Chris Vanduynhoven had the one-and-only two-goal night of his career in that game, but history will also show it was the second game of the Cougars’ nine-game losing streak... Vancouver’s power play is 14th in the league at 18.5 per cent, 28 goals in as many games. Killing penalties, the Giants are fifth at 84.2 per cent... Michal Repik will play for the Czech Republic at the upcoming world juniors. He leads the Giants with 16 goals and 35 points in 28 games. He’s also plus-15... Casey Pierro-Zabotel has played here before, but at the Coliseum. The Pittsburgh draft pick left Merritt of the BCHL for the Giants a few weeks back. Pierro-Zabotel, from Kamloops, has a goal and five points in five games... D Justin Palazzo, who has family in P.G., was traded to Vancouver by Prince Albert earlier this season.