Katie and I are enormous hockey fans and are very proud to announce that Embrace Niagara will feature a series of articles on the Niagara Ice Dogs over the course of the 2012-2013 season. As the focus of our site is on life in the Niagara region rather than specifically on sports or hockey, we will try to look at things from a slightly different perspective.
The first of our Niagara Ice Dogs articles is very special as it focuses on the family aspect of the hockey club and features our very first Guest Contributor, Susan Tromanhauser. Susan is a Niagara resident, a published writer and regular contributor to both OHLwriters.com and In The O radio show. Susan covered the Niagara Icedogs as they went on their run to the OHL Finals last season.
As a hockey fan and a contributor to “In the O the Radio Show” (that’s O as in OHL) I must admit I am missing my junior hockey fix. So last week I popped into the Niagara Ice Dog office in downtown St. Catharines. While fans are waiting in anticipation for the follow up to the team’s best season ever (Eastern Conference Champions), there was little down time for the Burkes as owners of their family business known as the Niagara Ice Dogs.
While Bill and Denise Burke are the owners of the Major Junior A franchise, it truly is a family business with twenty-something year old sons Billy Jr. and Joey fully immersed in the running of the team. This particular sunny August day the Burke boys greeted me and led me through the office, past staff members manning the phones to secure advertising and ticket sales and through a maze of boxes of new equipment, concession and souvenir stock. Once the duo explained to me how they have been preparing for the new season, any doubt the pair were handed cushy jobs because of family connections was quickly erased.
Joey has been the assistant general manager full-time for the past two seasons. He lists off wide ranging duties which fill his day. In preparation for training camp he must contact draft picks, set up itineraries, ensure player eligibility, secure visas for European players, league registrations, U.S. health insurance for all players when traveling stateside. Joey is even the go to guy when someone needs picking up at the airport. Joey sums his role up by saying his primary job is to do the entire behind the scenes stuff so head coach and GM Marty Williamson can concentrate on the hockey stuff.
His older brother Billy Jr. has the role of assistant coach. As an OHL alumnus, Billy has a good idea of what pressures the young hockey players are under. Not just parental and coaching pressures, but the pressure the athlete puts upon himself. He acknowledges the OHL is a 12 month commitment; there is no taking the summers off for the athlete. If a player chooses to slack off during the summer there will be another player who kept training and is ready to take his spot.
The brothers are excited about this year’s training camp. There will be lots of spots available on the team this year with the “graduation” of Andrew Aggozino, Alex Friesen and David Pacan. It is also expected Niagara has seen the last of the Hamilton brothers as Freddie will likely be in the AHL with the Sharks affiliate team and Dougie will stick with the Boston Bruins. Of course all bets are off if there is an NHL strike/lock-out.
Along with the coaching staff, the Burke brothers have been busy preparing for training camp where 55-60 guys are expected including 2 new Europeans, all the returning players, draft picks from the last few years as well as free agents.
I asked Billy and Joey if the poor facilities at the Jack Gatecliff arena was a deterrent in recruiting players to Niagara, and they both insisted the “Jack” was actually a major attraction. They credit their parents with ensuring the dressing room and other necessities are available for the team but they feel it is the fans suffering with poor spectator accommodation. Billy believes Niagara fans are the main attraction for getting players to come to Niagara. Bringing a draft pick to a play-off game to see the fans in action seals the deal. Billy acknowledges “the fans in this region are as knowledgeable as any fans in the league.”
Training camp started Tuesday, August 28th and hockey fans like me will soon be able to get their fix as the practices are open to the public. As a young team there will be lots of surprises, with spots to fill from the over-agers to the 16 years olds. How ever it unfolds I am expecting another exciting season of Ice Dog hockey!
Thanks again, to Susan Tromanhauser for bringing her insight on the Niagara Ice Dogs to Embrace Niagara.
For more information on the OHL Niagara Ice Dogs, including team roster, schedule and tickets please visit their OFFICIAL WEBSITE.