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The Niagara Ice Dogs is a Family Business

With the announcement back in the summer of 2007 the Mississauga Ice Dogs had been sold and new owners were relocating the team to the Niagara area, Niagara hockey fans were excited about the opportunity to see OHL caliber hockey, as well as future NHL stars mature right here in Niagara. What most fans didn’t realize at the time was the move not only meant a relocation of a hockey team but also relocation of a family.

Team owners Bill and Denise Burke, having recently sold their Aurora based family printing business, decided to make a major leap and purchase a Major Junior A hockey franchise. The younger generation, sons Billy Jr. and Joey, dug right into the family business as well.

Joey has been the assistant general manger full-time for the past two seasons. He lists off wide ranging duties which fill his day. For example, iIn preparation for last month’s training camp he contacted draft picks, set up itineraries, ensured player eligibility, secured visas for European players, league registrations, and U.S. health insurance.  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.

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.”

The brothers are excited about this year’s team. Like last year when the Ice Dogs had to juggle line-ups with four players away with various Team Canada duties, the line-up this year may need to be juggled again depending on the length of the NHL lock-out. It is expected Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Strome will end up with their respective NHL teams. 

Billy Jr. admits expectations this season are perhaps not as high as last season’s Eastern Conference Championship team. “I would love to be back in the finals, I don’t think that will happen this year. Each player has to over achieve. Missing the play-offs is unacceptable. Anything can happen. If the guys all buy in and the stars all align, who knows? We are optimist for the season. We kept all of the young players like Carter Verhaeghe and Broderick Kelly, the young guys who will become the future of this team. It has set us up for success in the future… (They will) build confidence, have room to make mistakes, less pressure because we don’t have to win every game. We will regroup. By the time the new rink comes along (in two years) we will be knocking at the door again.”

Joey thinks the Ice Dogs will finish in the top half of the conference and go on a run. “Maybe going  a couple rounds deep in the play-offs, keeping it exciting for the fans and maybe surprise a few people by winning a trophy……I think we are young but we are also very talented. We are still going to have a good team, if we stay healthy and (have)  a little bit of luck.”

However the Ice Dogs do this season, both Burke brothers acknowledge they work hard for the fans, for the community.  Billy says “This is more than a job for us. This is our whole life. Our life revolves around this team. I love it here; this is an opportunity of a life time. We are all Ice Dogs.”

McDavid Makes His OHL Debut

Connor McDavid made his OHL debut on Thursday evening facing the Niagara Ice Dogs. Sixteen seconds into the game he was welcomed into the big leagues with a major hit from Boston Bruins draft pick Dougie Hamilton. It was a clear statement from the Ice Dogs they were not going to treat this fifteen year old with kid gloves but rather show him what to expect as he embarks his career in the OHL. Hamilton was on McDavid throughout most of the game and kept him off the score sheet. With a 4-2 loss to the Ice Dogs, McDavid admitted he was disappointed with the results. “(The game) definitely could have gone a bit better. It sucks to give up the two points. Losing is something that doesn’t sit very well with me.”

Landing at the bottom of the OHL standings last year the Erie Otters were able to select McDavid first over-all in the 2012 OHL priority draft. Many have asked McDavid if he must become the saviour of the Otters.  “I don’t feel too much pressure….I try not to focus on me, try to focus on the team game. There are 22 of us out there.”

McDavid believes he is ready to make the jump from midget hockey to the Major Junior “A” league. “I feel pretty comfortable out there, (but) it’s not fully there yet.” McDavid acknowledges he needs to continue improving the defensive side of the game as well as face-offs.
Following the Ice Dog loss the soft-spoken McDavid appeared shaken by the barrage of hits from the Team Canada alumni Hamilton. “It was certainly unexpected and I was not prepared. (Hamilton) might be the best player in the entire league. It’s good to get that under my belt.”

For a young teen, McDavid has been under a number of changes in the last few weeks; a new hockey club, first time away from home, living with a billet family, a new school, not only a new city but a new country. It is understandable if there is an adjustment period for this hockey phenom.

With his second outing in the league, McDavid was able to score his first OHL points with a goal and an assist against last year’s OHL champions the London Knights. While a milestone for McDavid, it was another team loss as the Knights outscored the Otters 8-2. All eyes will continue to be on McDavid throughout the season.

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