Marty Williamson isn’t looking forward to seeing Canadian players Mark Visentin, Ryan Strome and the Hamilton brothers, Dougie and Freddie, after the world junior hockey championship.
It’s anything but personal. It’s just that the Niagara IceDogs head coach already endured a tough stretch when about nine of his players returned to the Ontario Hockey League team from National Hockey League training camps and proceeded to struggle.
“They’re all going to show up on my doorstep on Jan. 6 [for a home against Owen Sound] and we’re going to need a couple of weeks to deprogram them and get them back to what the IceDogs do,” Williamson said in an interview during the OHL’s Christmas hiatus.
Niagara won only three of its first 10 regular-season games through mid-October before winning four of five contests to end the month with its regular lineup.
“First we had a terrible pre-season,” Williamson said of his team's 1-1-1 mark, “and then we had all these guys come back at different times and they all had a little bit of NHL hangover. With a lot of good players we were a bad hockey team for a big stretch.”
Enter IceDogs assistant coaches Jason Brooks and Billy Burke who were instructed to pore over video with the group of players, who Williamson said “had their heads in other places.”
After the aforementioned foursome took off for Calgary and the world junior selection camp on Dec. 10, Williamson’s IceDogs won two of three before the Christmas break and sits tied with Barrie for third spot in the OHL’s Eastern Conference with 41 points (19-12-3).
Problem is Niagara, which is already missing four players because of injuries, is scheduled to play three games before Visentin, Strome and the Hamiltons return — starting Dec. 28 at Owen Sound — so it’s feeling like October again.
“They’re going to go through a similar thing of a hangover coming back from the world juniors because they’re going through a month of intense hockey where the training is intense, there’s a new system, they’re playing different roles and there’s the stress of winning,” said Williamson.
Visentin left Niagara after posting an 11-7-2 record and 2.82 goals-against average — good for ninth in the OHL — in his first 21 games this season.
Dougie and Freddie Hamilton led the IceDogs attack and were ninth and 11th in league scoring, respectively, as of Dec. 27. Dougie, a defenceman and Boston Bruins first-round pick in 2011, has 12 goals and 45 points, two more than his brother, Niagara’s top point-getting forward with 43 on 15 goals and 28 assists.
Strome, whom the New York Islanders chose fifth overall in the summer, had a four-point night in his hometown of Mississauga, Ont., less than 24 hours before he flew to the Team Canada selection camp on Dec. 10 to give him 33 points on the season in 24 games.
He struggled at the camp and early in pre-tournament exhibition games but rebounded with a one-goal, three-assist performance in Canada’s tournament-opening 8-1 victory over Finland on Boxing Day.
Williamson said he was holding his breath that none of the IceDogs players would get cut at the selection, knowing how hard it would have been for any of them to return to Niagara earlier than expected.
The coach added that experiences on a big stage such as the world juniors can round out people.
“I’m hoping that they can bring back some real positive experience for our guys,” said Williamson. “I think it can be a big stepping stone for us. With four guys [at the world juniors] there’s going to be a pretty common theme coming back and that’s what’s going to be awfully important for our team.
“It’s been an interesting year and I still believe in our team an awful lot. Some people are slamming us for underachieving a little bit right now. … I’m actually quite happy where we are. I think we’ve been able to keep our head above water, even though it’s been a tough first half on us.”
And soon, Williamson will be looking to Visentin, Strome, Dougie Hamilton and Freddie Hamilton to draw on their world junior experience to help give the IceDogs an extra push towards an OHL playoff berth.