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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.”

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