It’s been a successful two seasons for the Badgers men’s hockey team under head coach Marty Williamson. From hosting the Queen’s Cup to a trip to the U Sports national tournament — to a record number of wins and points in a season. Despite the number of milestones in these past two years, the Badgers are just picking up steam. During the off-season, the Badgers made waves on the recruiting trail.
“I think the expectations are going to be high. I love the confidence in our guys at practice so far, it’s a fine line between confidence and being too cocky, but we’re a month away from a regular season game, so it’s still very early. We sure are, as coaches, excited about the prospects of this team,” said Williamson. “We ran into some health problems at the end of last season, and it was kind of too much for us last year, you need some good wishes on your side and good luck for everything to fall in place, but the key is to put the pieces there and have that opportunity, and I think that opportunity is there for us.”
After replacing Clint Windsor in the summer of 2018 with Logan Thompson, the Badgers were once again faced with finding a replacement in between the pipes. The Badgers have recruited two goaltenders, Mario Culina and Zach Bowman. Culina spent time in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), as well as five games in the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) with the Newfoundland Growlers. His resume includes a Memorial Cup with the Windsor Spitfires as well as an Ontario Junior A championship. Bowman, a native of St. Catharines, also spent time playing in the OHL with four different teams (Plymouth, Flint, Sudbury and Owen Sound).
The Badgers also reloaded their blue line, adding former IceDog Johnny Schaefer, who is no stranger to the Niagara region, as well as a commitment from Jordan Sambrook. On the front end, Christian Girhiny, another local, as well as a commitment from Kevin Hancock, have rounded out their incoming class.
Sambrook spent just over two seasons with the Erie Otters of the OHL and then another year and a half with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He was selected in the 2016 NHL draft, picked in the fifth round by the Detroit Red Wings. Currently, Sambrook is at the Boston Bruins Prospects Challenge, while Kevin Hancock, who finished his career with the London Knights, is participating in the St. Louis Blues prospects camp (where their prospects are competing in the Traverse City prospects tournament).
Both recruits are two of the top players to commit to the Badgers in the history of their program.
“They obviously raise expectations, and there’s good and bad to that, but it’s the problems that we want to have. We want to have the talented guys. If we get both of them back [from their NHL camps] then we believe we have the pieces that we want,” said Williamson. “We have a high-end defenceman, and to get Hancock, we’ve never had — at least in my time here — an elite scorer. 52 goals and 52 assists for the London Knights, that’s a big recruit. So for us going forward, when you start seeing guys like that come to our program, it really makes it easier recruiting down the path.”
Christian Girhiny, who grew up in Niagara and played just over three seasons with the Erie Otters of the OHL, said that Brock was the perfect fit for him.
“Definitely one of the main reasons I chose Brock was for the hockey program, I’ve known Marty for a long time, I’m a Niagara kid so I watched him coach the IceDogs. With Marty as our coach and the new guys, all the pieces are coming together,” said Girhiny.
Johnny Schaefer was with the Niagara IceDogs for the past three seasons as well as part of the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. He was drafted in 2014 to the IceDogs by Williamson, then-head coach and general manager.
“I mean when you finish playing in the OHL, lots of guys are sad that they aren’t moving on to the [professional] level. Brock has an incredible team and there are so many good players. Marty is a great coach and they’ve been a great team the past few years. It makes it exciting to start a new chapter in my life, not just from a hockey standpoint but from a school standpoint as well,” said Schaefer.
Schaefer brings much more to the Badgers than his on-ice abilities as a defenceman; he has been heavily involved in the community since coming to Niagara. One family, in particular, has developed a close relationship with Schaefer.
Adam Egerter, a nine year-old from Thorold, was diagnosed with brain cancer in March of 2018. Schaefer befriended Egerter and his brother, Christopher, while playing for the IceDogs, and they’ve shared a special bond ever since.
“When my son started [chemotherapy] last July, Johnny’s dad got in contact with us and said Johnny wanted to come up and see him. He came right to the hospital and sat with Adam two or three times of the six times Adam had [chemotherapy] treatment,” said Jay Egerter, Adam’s father.
When asked how Johnny Schaefer has treated him, Adam Egerter had nothing but kind words.
“He treats me like gold.”
“Seeing a young boy at his age go through something like that, [it] makes you think that there’s way more to life than hockey. Maybe you play a bad game or are stressed about a paper, and you look to that story and realize it’s only a minor bump in the road. There are people like him going through so much more than you. I went to visit him a couple times in the hospital just to give him some happiness. To see him recover, it made me so happy,” said Schaefer.
“Once the season started back up again, [Johnny] would always come up and see [Adam]. He got injured about mid-season and he would come sit with the kids in the press box. He treats my kids like they’re his brothers,” said Egerter.
Schaefer’s involvement in the community is something he attributes to how he was raised.
“I have two very good parents and they raised me the right way, to be respectful,” said Schaefer. “No matter who you’re with, it doesn’t matter who someone is, you give everyone a chance. I came into Niagara and initially did school visits, different events, anything I could do. I just enjoy it.”
While Schaefer may be new to the Badgers, Williamson knows him from first coaching him as a 16 year-old when Schaefer was drafted by Williamson to the IceDogs.
“I’ve liked Johnny since my time [with the IceDogs], and I just saw what a quality kid he is and his family, he’s everything you really want as far as a Badger. He’ll be the first guy when we talk about school visits or hospital visits, he’ll be right there. You just can’t have enough of those guys,” said Williamson.
Schaefer also sees his involvement with the community as a small return for being able to play hockey every day. The perspective gained from knowing kids like Adam Egerter and the smiles on the faces of kids who he signs autographs for are really what it’s all about for the defenceman.
“There’s nothing better than seeing a kids reaction than after a game, signing a young kids jersey, for the five minutes it takes — to see their reaction — it just makes you extremely happy that you can change someone’s day like that. The kids don’t care if you win or lose,” said Schaefer. “It’s a lot more than just hockey, it’s the way you act with fans and how you treat the kids. Saying hi, taking a picture — it can go a long way. Knowing that you changed someone’s day in those twenty seconds is a great feeling.”
While the Badgers’ additions bring plenty of quality to the ice, the character of the players is a high priority for Williamson and his staff when they go recruiting.
“The game has changed so much — there are so many good players out there — the character of the players is one of the most important things,” said Williamson. “Especially, sometimes at professional levels, they take chances on guys, but at a university level where you’re not trading guys and you’re not really kicking guys off teams, the character of the player is so important.”
Williamson echoed that the Badgers have had good fortune with many players in the past, who have exemplified the leadership and character they want embodied within their team. Bringing in recruits like Schaefer allows them to continue building that culture.
Aside from the players, Williamson has had a busy summer himself. He was named the Senior Advisor to the Director of Hockey Operations for one of his former OHL teams, the Barrie Colts, a few months back.
“I’m good friends with the owner up there, he was the owner when I was up there for six years, and they’ve gone through some hard times a bit missing the playoffs two out of the past three years. He wanted someone to be able to talk to, he’s got a younger general manager, so someone more his age that he could sort of bounce things off of.”
Williamson was the head coach in Barrie for six seasons, making six straight playoff appearances and reaching the OHL finals in his final season with the Colts. Though, it was announced last week that current head coach Dale Hawerchuk would be taking a medical leave of absence from the team. While being without a head coach just a few weeks before their first game is an obstacle most teams don’t have to overcome, Williamson assured that his role wouldn’t alter with the absence of Hawerchuk.
“This is Dale’s team, when he gets healthy he’ll be back behind the bench. We didn’t think we’d have to do a search to find an interim guy. We need to find a guy that’s the right fit. Once a guy is in place everything will be set-up in Barrie.”
That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been some rumours about whether or not Williamson was going to be headed back to Barrie. But the third-year head coach is all in with the Badgers.
“To get to the national championship is my focus. I know there was a slight distraction the past couple days because there were some slight rumours that I might be going to Barrie. There is nothing further from the truth. I’m very invested [with Brock]. We love it here in the Niagara region. I’ve built a team here that I’m really proud of and that I like a lot — this is my priority,” said Williamson.
With all the excitement surrounding the new recruits, Badger fans will get a glimpse at what’s to come from the team this year when the Badgers face off against the Guelph Gryphons in the annual Steel Blade Classic game this Friday at the Meridian Centre. The new recruits know that, while it may be ‘just’ an exhibition game, it’s not just an exhibition game.
“My first game back in two years and I’m at home. I get to play for Brock University in front of 5,000 fans; that’s unreal,” said goaltender Zach Bowman.
“It’s one of those games, really doesn’t mean a lot but it’s extremely important. Our guys look forward to it. It’ll be an exciting game, it always is,” said Williamson.
On the ice, the Badgers will likely be without Hancock and Sambrook for the Steel Blade Classic game, while Williamson said that both Zach Bowman and Mario Cavaliere will likely see playing time in nets. Goaltender Mario Culina currently isn’t eligible to play. While the game is still meaningful, it’s Williamson and his staff’s first opportunity to see their team — and some of their new players — in action.
“We’ve got a lot of veterans so they know our systems pretty well, we’ve got to integrate the new guys to get everybody on the same page. Sambrook and Hancock aren’t here right now and I’m not even sure they’ll be back for that game, so that’s two big pieces out of our line-up. We’ve got depth and we want to find out more about our team.”
The Badgers will continue their exhibition schedule, including OUA and NCAA opponents, while their home opener will take place on Friday, Oct. 4 at 7:15 p.m. at the Seymour-Hannah Centre.