Six years had gone by since the last time Prince George Cougars defenceman Austin Crossley played a game of hockey close to home in Fort St. John.
So you could understand why the 20-year-old was so excited about the Cougars setting up shop an hour's drive to the southeast in Dawson Creek for a pair of WHL preseason games against the Edmonton Oil Kings Thursday and Saturday.
Crossley and Cougars forward Connor Bowie, also a Fort St. John native, arrived in their Peace Country stomping grounds early Thursday and will be there for two more days to show off their talent on the ice in the games, visit some school kids and share their hockey knowledge in skills clinics.
"It's going to be a good time," said Crossley. "Dr. Kearney Middle School (in Fort St. John) has a hockey academy there and I actually went there. My brother's going there now so it will be cool to see him.
"I haven't played a game up there since my second year of bantam, way back in minor hockey. I've got a lot of cousins, aunties, uncles and parents and the rink (Encana Events Centre in Dawson Creek) will be packed, lots of friends."
The hard-hitting Crossley played as a left winger in the last three games of the 2018-19 season and scored a goal, and has also been used as a forward again this preseason. Now in his fourth junior season, after starting his WHL career with the Prince Albert Raiders, he doesn't mind switching back and forth.
"It's just day-by-day right now, wherever (head coach and general manager Mark Lamb) thinks I'll play best that day," said the six-foot-one, 210-pound Crossley. "In minor hockey I was an offensive defenceman but I switched my role quite a bit going into junior."
The Cougars, who open the season next weekend at home against the Vancouver Giants, won't play any of their preseason games in Prince George. After facing off Thursday night against each other, the Cougars and Oil Kings will be working together today visiting schools and putting on minor hockey clinics in Dawson Creek and Fort St. John, followed by a banquet tonight.
"It's great for the team to get a lot of exposure in that area," said Lamb. "There's a lot of hockey players there, younger kids who will see ourselves and Edmonton, and there's going to be some point where we'll have a kid from Dawson Creek on our team. It's good for our players to go to the schools and it's good for us to meet some minor hockey people. It will be a fun couple days up there for us."
The Cougars were outscored 19-4 in their first three exhibition games last weekend, losing 7-1 to Kamloops and 5-3 to Vancouver in Langley, before traveling to Kelowna where they suffered a 7-0 loss to the Rockets.
"It was tough, we're so young, but I expected that," said Lamb. "It's all evaluation and it's all good. We started pretty good in that (Kelowna) game. We got down, but we outchanced them in that first period and played alright."
That game was goalie Tyler Brennan's first taste of preseason action. The 16-year-old rookie was injured for the first two games and with Taylor Gauthier still at the Boston Bruins' rookie camp at the time, midget goalie Colton Phillips-Watts sat on the bench while Isaiah DiLaura faced the Blazers and Giants. Trailing the Rockets 7-0 after two periods, Brennan wiped the slate clean and made 10 saves, shutting them out the rest of the game despite his team being shorthanded five times in the final period.
"That was good for Brennan to battle back in third with all those penalties," said Lamb. "He was rattled in there, he hadn't played because he had an injury."
F Ilijah Colina got hurt in the Vancouver game and will be out four to six weeks with a shoulder injury. F Ethan Browne is also nursing an upper-body injury and hasn't skated even in training camp. D Cole Beamin (upper body) was close to being ready for games in the Dawson Creek.
"It would be nice to get healthy," Lamb said.
The Cougars now have their NHL campers back, including Gauthier, D Cole Moberg (Chicago Blackhawks) and LW Josh Maser (New York Rangers). Aside from their injured players they'll have a full roster available for the two games this week.
They released defenceman Cam MacPhee, their only other 20-year-old, during training camp, which leaves Crossley, Maser, and defenceman Ryan Schoettler as their three overage players.