Two years ago; former Niagara IceDogs head coach — current Brock men’s hockey head coach — Marty Williamson’s contract wasn’t renewed by owners Denise and Bill Burke. After guiding the team to the Eastern Conference finals in his sixth season, the owners had decided that it was time for a change behind the bench. Dave Bell was promoted weeks later to replace Williamson, and led the IceDogs to an eighth place finish in the Eastern Conference with a 23-35-0-10 record, setting up a first round playoff series with top-seeded Peterborough Petes. The Petes swept the IceDogs in four games, but things looked bright for the future with Bell at the helm of the program.
Bell then shocked IceDogs nation when he jumped at the opportunity to be an assistant coach with the AHL’s Ontario Reign (affiliate club of the Los Angeles Kings) in late July last summer.
Just like that, the IceDogs were right back where they were just over a year after cutting ties with Williamson — looking for a new leader with under two months before their first regular season game.
Longtime assistant coach and son of owners, Bill and Denise Burke (and brother of IceDogs general manager, Joey Burke), Billy Burke, was hired to be the new head coach just a week after Bell resigned.
At the time of Burke’s hiring, there was lots of talk of nepotism surrounding the hiring of Billy Burke. With the general manager already one of the owners’ sons, and now the head coach, there were plenty of people who thought things would go awry in Niagara.
“It’s an unfortunate reality that will always follow me,” said Burke. “We weren’t naive to think that people wouldn’t be saying those things, and there wouldn’t be a backlash. It was expected. It gets frustrating but you have to focus on what you’re trying to do. I think having a good season has certainly quieted some of the critics.”
Burke, however, says there are no better jobs — he is all in as the IceDogs head coach, and he’s exactly where he wants to be.
“A lot of people think it’s easy when you’re in a family business and they think it’s easy with my parents owning the team, when I find it’s actually harder. It’s everything for us, it’s not just a job. I’m here for the Niagara IceDogs 100 per cent,” Burke said.
While many will argue that Burke had a leg up because of his family name, the IceDogs success this season has shown that regardless of nepotism, Burke is proving to be the right fit. The IceDogs are eyeing their highest finish in the standings since the 2015-16 season, when the team finished fourth with 77 points.
Burke, who played centre for the Barrie Colts in the 2005-06 season (appearing in 60 games), began his coaching career with the IceDogs during the 2009-10 season under Mike McCourt. After eight full seasons behind the bench as an assistant, when the call came to take over he was ready to go.
“It’s been a long process, you always think about being the head coach eventually. It happened quickly in the summer. There wasn’t a lot of time to think about it. I know all the guys, I’ve been here the longest, it was a bit unexpected but sometimes it’s best you don’t have time to overthink things, it’s just jump right in the fire and go from there,” said Burke.
Burke has worked under three different head coaches during his time as an assistant in Niagara, all of whom have given him the tools to succeed where he is now.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to play for some good coaches and have some good teammates, I have a lot of great people that I can pull from. I’ve been very fortunate to work with great coaches here in Marty Williamson, Dave Bell, Mike McCourt, the guys who helped me learning what it takes, what to look for, and the important things on the day to day,” said Burke.
Though Burke has had plenty experience as an assistant coach, with being the head coach he now has the task of filling his coaching and support staff. Burke is assisted by Kris Sparre and goaltending coach Ryan Ludzik. However, the biggest name on Burke’s staff arrived in August when the IceDogs hired Ted Dent as associate coach. Dent came to Niagara after six seasons as head coach of the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs (the Chicago Blackhawks affiliate).
“Adding Ted Dent was huge for us, being able to bring in a guy with that much experience, he’s been a great sounding board for me, he has a ton of knowledge, he’s been amazing,” said Burke.
Though the IceDogs have had plenty of success this season, you won’t find a big name on their roster or any bound-for-the-NHL players either. They’re a young team, and they’ve worked their way there with a balance from their whole roster.
“A lot of guys think they’re outsmarting the world by thinking about next year, whereas we said you know, we’ve got a great opportunity this year to try to do something,” said Burke about his team.
Prior to the overage trade deadline, the IceDogs acquired Sam Miletic from the London Knights. The 20-year-old is nearing the end of his OHL career and at the time of the trade, was the Knights leading scorer (16 goals, 38 assists — 54 points). Miletic currently sits fifth in the league in points (86), just three points behind Nick Suzuki (Owen Sound) in fourth. The next IceDog on the list in points is Akil Thomas with 72 — he is 15th in the league. Of the top 100 scorers in the league, Niagara only boasts five players amongst that list, while the likes of Barrie, Hamilton and Kingston have a combined 21 players in the top 100.
“That’s why you bring in a guy like Miletic, it shows confidence in the players that we believe in them,” said Burke. “I said to the team, we didn’t bring in Sam because you guys didn’t do the job, we brought him in because you guys did do the job and you put us in this position.”
“They expect to win, they aren’t satisfied with losing, it’s a high character group of guys.”
Recently, the IceDogs struggled through a nine game winless stretch, from January 28 through February 19, where the team lost six games in regulation, two in overtime and one in shootout. The IceDogs allowed 38 goals in that stretch.
“When we’re playing hard defensively, that translates through the lineup. Going forward, we need to focus on that, our identity. When teams lose focus of their identity, that’s when things go sideways,” said Burke. “We play our best when we’re high energy and using our speed and playing on our toes, we get into a bit more trouble when we think we’re more skilled than we are … that’s when mistakes happen. We’re not a team expected to win the league, but hopefully we’re a team that other teams don’t want to play come playoff time.”
The IceDogs (29-23-7-3) clinched a playoff spot this past weekend with a Peterborough loss to Erie, and will make a post-season appearance for the 11th consecutive season. They are currently in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with 68 points, behind first place Hamilton (88 points), second place Barrie (79 points), and third place Kingston (75 points). With six games remaining in their regular season schedule, Niagara is still in the mix to move up in the standings, and will aim to solidify home ice for the first round of playoffs. While they prepare to make a playoff run, Burke hopes that this years experience will help their young players for returning next season.
“I think going into next season, there will be high expectations around the league for us, and that’s great,” said Burke. “We need to make sure we’re always improving, we need to make sure we don’t become complacent; if it’s a bad practice, we feel bad about it.”
After all, according to Burke, the OHL, and being head coach, is a league and position where the question is always, “What have you done for me lately?”