IceDogs open camp with renewed optimism
Niagara IceDogs head coach Ryan Kuwabara is eager to put his stamp on the team from Day 1 this season.
The IceDogs took to the ice as training camp opened Tuesday afternoon at Meridian Centre and the head coach is determined to move on from a disastrous 2022/23 Ontario Hockey League season.
“It’s great to have that fresh restart for sure and definitely start things the way I envision it being,” Kuwabara said.
Kuwabara joined the IceDogs in late November of last season with the team off to a 6-10-3 start under head coach Dan Fitzgerald and interim bench boss Jeff Angelidis.
“We’ve got a great core (of guys coming back) that knows me and the staff, knows how the coaches coach and it’s exciting for them,” Kuwabara said. “To have that and the ability to start fresh with a clean slate, the only way to go is up.”
Indeed, the IceDogs placed last overall in the standings with only 12 wins, not to mention a host of well publicized off-ice problems that resulted in team owner Darren DeDobbelaer being suspended for two seasons as general manager and captain Landon Cato and goaltender Joshua Rosenzweig being banned from the league. The organization was also fined $100,000 and forfeited their first overall 2024 pick, which they got back in an appeal.
“For our guys, the guys that are coming back, it was a learning experience that you never want to experience again,” Kuwabara said. “Sometimes in life you have to go through the hard times in life to get to the good times so you know what didn’t go well and now we know where we have to go.
“It’s nice to have that direction.”
A total of 43 players participated Tuesday, including No. 1 overall draft pick Ryan Roobroeck, as well as defenceman Daniil Sobolev, the lone overage player on the roster.
“Every year in junior hockey there seems to be a few jobs open just with the nature of the game with guys graduating and the three OA’s,” Kuwabara said. “It’s a growth mentality for us and see what we have and see where we can build. Lay the right foundation and then continue to add pieces to make us really, really competitive.”
Kuwabara said the team is still in the process of looking to add a couple of more OA’s. Teams are permitted three.
“We’re in a unique position where we have only one so we’re going to see what happens, see what’s available, and see who’s the right fit. We’ll see how it progresses and in the mean time, give these young guys a chance to play, which is invaluable,” he said.
Camp opened with two practices followed by an intersquad scrimmage. On Wednesday, Team White takes on Team Black from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday will feature team practices from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
“We’ll get through that (first 48 hours) and then get to the meat and potatoes of what we have coming back and see where they slot in. We’re going to give guys lots of chances to play with different guys to figure out what we have and who plays best with who,” Kuwabara said.
One area the team seems to be settled is in goal where veteran Owen Flores returns and will likely be backed up by Marcus Vandenberg, a 19-year-old picked up from Kitchener in the off-season.
“Going forward that’s what we’re looking at, but you never know. We might get a surprise here. That’s what camps all about,” Kuwabara said.
Other goalies in camp include local product Finn Moffet as well as Charlie Burns, who is slated to play junior B in Fort Erie, as well as Grimsby’s Hayden Jeffrey, who will suit up for the St. Catharines Falcons this season.
Returning forwards are Alex Assadourian, Kevin He, Chris O’Flaherty, Andrew Vermeulen, William Stewart, Zak Lavoie, Michael Podolioukh, Juan Copeland and Evan Klein.
Sami Douglas-Najem, Bronson Ride, Andrew Wycisk and Ryan VanNatten are the returning defencemen.
Notable newcomers include Roobroeck, 2023 draft picks Ethan Czata, Artem Frolov, Ivan Galiyanov along with Gavin Bryant, who was acquired from Owen Sound last week for Declan Waddick, and import defenceman Urban Podrekar.
Kuwabara feels it is a roster which can compete.
“I don’t want to put any pressure on the guys but obviously we want to have a winning season,” he said. “First and foremost we want to step out there and compete every night and work hard, outwork our opponents. Do all the little things that we maybe didn’t do last year.”
The IceDogs first pre-season game is set for Saturday, Sept. 2 at 7 p.m. versus the Peterborough Petes at the Meridian Centre.
The IceDogs also have exhibition games set for Friday, Sept. at the Guelph, Saturday, Sept. 9 versus Guelph at the Fleming Memorial Arena in Beamsville, Thursday, Sept. 21 versus Oshawa at the Meridian Centre and Saturday, Sept. 23 versus Peterborough at the Millbrook Arena.
The IceDogs begin the 2022/23 regular season Friday, Sept. 29 at London. They host the Knights Saturday, Sept. 30 in their home opener.
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