A pack of Niagara IceDogs have prominent roles on Canada's team at the world junior hockey championship.
It's common for a major junior teams to have more than one player on Canada's team, but four spots ties a record for the most from one club in a single year.
Freddie Hamilton, a forward, and his brother and defenceman Dougie Hamilton, centre Ryan Strome and goaltender Mark Visentin are all representing the Ontario Hockey League club.
“We're awfully proud all four of them made it and we feel real good about it,” IceDogs coach and general manager Marty Williamson said from St. Catharines, Ont.
The Windsor Spitfires (2010), the Kamloops Blazers (1996) and the Medicine Hat Tigers (1988) are the only Canadian Hockey League teams to put four players on one Canadian junior team.
Ryan Ellis, Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique and Greg Nemisz were the Spitfires who took silver two years ago. Nolan Baumgartner, Hnat Domenichelli, Jason Holland and Jarome Iginla represented the Blazers in ‘96 and won gold. Rob DiMaio, Trevor Linden, Scott McCrady and Mark Pederson were the Tigers who won gold for Canada in 1988.
Freddie Hamilton and Visentin, both 19, and 18-year-olds Dougie Hamilton and Strome have important jobs in Canada's quest for gold.
Freddie Hamilton, a San Jose Sharks prospect, plays centre on the checking line. Dougie Hamilton, a first-round draft pick of the Boston Bruins, is one half of Canada's top defensive pairing with Brandon Gormley.
Strome, the fifth overall selection in this year's draft by the New York Islanders, centres Canada's dominant forward line between Jonathan Huberdeau and Mark Stone. Visentin, property of the Phoenix Coyotes, was Canadian head coach Don Hay's choice to start in the tournament opener versus Finland.
“It is kind of special because basically their names are in the forefront non-stop,” Williamson said.
An IceDogs home game Saturday against Guelph has been moved back an hour to 6 p.m. ET. That was done to accommodate fans who want to see both that game and the Canada-U.S. game on television later in the evening, Williamson said.
While Williamson believes his players' inclusion on Canada's team will pay off in the long run, that's a large chunk of talent out of the lineup for the seven games the IceDogs will play before the four return.
The Hamiltons are first and second in team scoring, while Strome contributes over a point per game.
“We miss those guys a lot,” Williamson said. “They're part of our penalty kill, our power play and obviously Vis being our number one goalie, so it really does disrupt your team pretty good, but there's nothing you could do about it.
“In the big picture, it really is a good thing. It's going to help make us a lot stronger and whether we lose a game or two because of it, so be it.”
The IceDogs won two of their first three games after their teammates joined the Canadian team. They were 19-12-3 heading into Wednesday's game against Owen Sound.
Williamson hopes they can keep that pace in the absence of the Canadian team players. The IceDogs can't afford to lose ground in the ultra-competitive OHL Central Division, in which eight points separate first from last.
But the coach is willing to put up with some short-term pain for the long-term gain when the four players return.
“The real benefits come when they get rested again and what they can bring to the team,” Williamson said. “To win the gold medal, you've got to be a fantastic team and that's what these guys can bring back to our team saying ‘These little things are important.’
“I think we're going to be an awfully good team the second half and I'm pretty excited to get everybody back.”
For a team that boasts such high-end players, Niagara hasn't been ranked in the CHLs top 10 yet this season.
Strome didn't return from the Islanders until the middle of October and Visentin was injured until then. Winger Tom Kuehnhackl, a Pittsburgh Penguins prospect, is serving a 20-game suspension from a Nov. 4 hit to the head on Kitchener Rangers defenceman Ryan Murphy. Kuehnhackl isn't eligible to return until January.
Nine players were away at NHL camps to start the season and six hadn't returned in time for the season-opener. As a result, the IceDogs were slow out of the gates.
When they finally established some team chemistry with a 9-2-1 run, the Hamiltons, Strome and Visentin were summoned to Canada's selection camp.
“When we left, we started to turn things around,” Visentin said. “It's a huge year for us. We have a lot of firepower from our goaltenders to our defence and forwards. We just need to put it together.
“Once I get back there, I want to be the backbone of my team. I think it's going to be a great second half. We have a special squad this year, good coaches there and it's going to be a fun ride.”
The four IceDogs are monitoring their club team's fortunes on the Internet while they're playing for Canada.
“It's always interesting to see what they do, especially because the young guys are getting a chance while we're away,” Strome said. “I think we started to come on before Christmas. We've had some key injuries and suspensions and stuff, but I think once we get everyone back we'll get on a roll here.”
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