Over the past few years, I've done several Q & A's with players of the Ontario Hockey League, but this represents a first. I had a chance to ask Niagara IceDogs play by play announcer (and TV Cogeco's) Steve Clark some questions recently. Steve (with his colour man Ed Burkholder and rink level analyst Al Galloway) do a tremendous job covering the Dogs for TV Cogeco and are definitely among the best in the business. They've got a wicked blog over on Local Sports Report that is a must read for any OHL fan (HERE). Steve had some very interesting things to say and I've shared them with you below.
Brock Otten - Firstly, I have to say, you guys do an amazing job with your telecasts. Being frank, not every coverage crew does the research and has the knowledge that you do. The fans in Niagara are damn lucky to have you (and so is Cogeco). How’d you end up getting involved with doing the IceDog telecasts once the team moved to Niagara?
Steve Clark: First of all, thank you for the kind words. I had been working at the Tier 2, now OJHL level for four years as a colour commentator/fill-in play by play in Newmarket, but I was living in Brooklin (north of Whitby). I got the opportunity to fill in a couple of times as play by play man with the Oshawa Generals and had worked with Niagara producer, Darren Sawyer once before. The OHL games gave me enough for a demo DVD. When the team moved, I was tipped off by fellow broadcaster and contact Shawn McCart about the impending move of Mississauga to Niagara. I sent in my DVD, and was fortunate to get the call.
BO - Speaking of Niagara, what’s unfortunate is that instead of talking about a team competing for the Eastern Conference title, many people seem more concerned with the whole arena debacle in St. Catharines (am I guilty of this if I ask you a question about it?). Do you think a new arena will ever get built that secures the long term future of this franchise in the Niagara region?
SC - Yes I do think so. It has been made priority number one with St. Catharines City Council, in spite of some opposition from those who don't want their tax payer dollars go to an arena. What people fail to realize is that a spectator facility will be a multi-purpose facility with concerts, other sporting events, trade shows. Once they realize that , then support should be greater. I also have to believe that there is a back-up plan should St. Catharines Council drop the ball, whether it be Niagara or another part of the Niagara Region.
BO - But it is a real shame that it’s come down to this though. I went to University in St. Catharines and was a frequent IceDog game attendant. The atmosphere in that old barn is like nothing the OHL has to offer and the fans are among the most passionate of any group in the league. Would you agree that the Niagara region absolutely deserves to keep this franchise?
SC - Without a shadow of a doubt the Niagara region deserves to keep this team. While the atmosphere in the old barn when it is rocking is second to none, there is a lack of concessions, parking leg room, comfortable seating and other amenities in some of the newer arenas. Yet the Ice Dogs consistently draw above 2 500, and many times sell-out the building. That is true passion and loyalty!
BO - OK, let’s change directions. The Dogs have one heck of a team this year. How does this year’s team compare with the 2007-08 IceDogs who were lead by the likes of Luca Caputi, Michael Swift, and Alex Pietrangelo? Is this year’s team better (even if it’s early to make that claim)?
SC - Whether or not this years edition of the team is better than 2007-2008 remains to be seen. That 07-08 squad was an immensely veteran and talented bunch, who fell short against an outstanding John Tavares, Mike Del Zotto lead Oshawa Generals. Alex Pietrangelo missed the second round of the playoffs due to illness, and his absence may have cost the Ice Dogs. During the regular season that 07-08 team was a great team to watch. The Ice Dogs were a novelty, sell outs were regular and the likes of Caputi with 51 goals, and Swift 100 points were great to watch. This years team is deeper than that first team. The Ice Dogs have three legitimate scoring lines, good energy from the 4th line and a solid, yet unspectacular defense, save for Dougie Hamilton and Jesse Graham. Mark Visentin is a outstanding puck stopper. and is ably backed up by Dalton McGrath, when McGrath is not getting into scraps!
BO - Do you think this team is built to go far in the playoffs? Marty has done a great job of making this team bigger and tougher and that shows in the team’s home record (best home winning percentage in the league). I’m just not sure many teams are going to be lining up to come and play at the Jack Gatecliff in April.
SC - Yes it is built to go far. They have a top notch goaltender, depth and scoring through three lines. The defense is a little undermanned right now with Tim Billingsley suspended and Shane Rover questionable for the start of the playoffs. The only teams that have knocked off Niagara in regulation in St. Catharines were Mississauga and Owen Sound, unsurprisingly the two top seeds in their respective conferences
BO - Why is it then that the small ice gives the team that advantage? Is it the fact that the Dogs are used to it? Or is the team built for success in this environment? I mean, it’s not like the Bulls are winning games on the big ice in Belleville right now!
SC - When you go into a small rink, the game is so much faster and you have less times to make decisions. That is difficult to adjust to, more so than a large ice surface. Plus I think Marty Williamson did make his key acquisitions with the smaller ice surface in mind
BO - Of all the acquisitions that Marty has completed this year, which has benefited the team the most in your opinion?
SC - For me right now I would say Darren Archibald. He's a leader, true power forward with a great scoring touch. Plus he made a championship run with Marty Williamson last year. However, if the Ice Dogs go deep in the playoffs the player who I think will step up and pay bigger dividends for the Dogs would be Tim Billingsly. He is the veteran of the defense, a shut-down type that could truly rise to the forefront in crunch time. He'll be back from suspension in the second round, and will be fresh.
BO - I’m hoping we can shift to talking about some individual players now. First and foremost, I’m going to put you on the spot. You’re an NHL General Manager in June. Who do you take first, Dougie Hamilton or Ryan Strome? I mean, this is a question that a GM could be faced with at the draft as these two seem pretty close in most draft rankings.
SC - Wow, tough question. I think Strome has that innate sixth sense about him and his creativity, flair and quick release make him a hair above Dougie Hamilton. I think he will make a quicker impact, but make no mistake, Dougie will be an outstanding pro.
BO - What’s the biggest difference in Ryan Strome’s game this year? I mean, he’s made a pretty substantial leap this season.
SC - Quantum leap I would say!! His feet are so much quicker than last year and his commitment to two way play have been two things that I have noticed. I don't know if you improve your on-ice vision, in an off-season but his natural ability to find people has been outstanding.
BO - I got an interesting email question the other day. Someone asked me to compare Dougie Hamilton and Alex Pietrangelo in their days as IceDogs. How do you see these two stacking up? I personally wasn’t a huge fan of the comparison.
SC - Its the easy comparison to make, as they both have worn the Ice Dog jersey, are long, lanky, offensively gifted and very good on the back end. The difference between the two is that I think that Dougie has great offensive instincts, i.e. when to jump into the rush and has added that hip check to his repertoire. Pietrangelo is just such a dynamic and dominant presence on the Ice. He is composed, moves the puck well and has a great shot. There are definite comparables between the two for sure.
BO - Again, I’m putting you on the spot. Who’s going to have the better NHL career, Hamilton or Pietrangelo? Basically, what I’m saying is that someone has a gun to your head and YOU’VE got to pick one of these two to lead your defense corps. Who do you pick?
SC - Tough to answer until I see how the team that drafts Dougie develops him. I know that Pietrangelo was very disappointed he got sent back to junior two years in a row after starting with the big club, but it has made him a better defensemen right now and will in the long run. I think if the team that drafts Dougie keeps him up his first year, that may actually hinder his development. The Ice Dogs are expected to be a great team next year and he could use another year of seasoning.
BO - How’s Mark Visentin been playing since he returned from the World Juniors? Has that experience hurt his confidence at all?
SC - No, Visentin is such a stand up guy. I knew that from the moment he faced the media so soon after that loss to Russia, that he would be fine. There was some concern because he puts so much pressure on himself because of his intense preparation, but if you check the numbers since he returned, they have been outstanding. He's ready for a long play off run.
BO - I’ve been on the Darren Archibald train for two years now and just couldn’t believe he went through the draft twice. Big guys who play big and who have hands don’t grow on trees. The Vancouver Canucks got themselves a great player when they picked him up recently. How do you think he profiles as an NHL player?
SC - Vancouver got a steal for sure. One thing for Archibald is that he is an intimidating presence, but not necessarily an intimidating player, unless you are a Windsor goaltender! He has very soft hands, a quick release and can play equally well on both the power play and killing penalties. I see him as a great two way player, capable of 15-20 goals a year.
BO - The Dogs have a bevy of NHL draft picks playing big roles this year. Just to give some of my Sharks, Canucks, Sabres, Panthers, and Rangers fan readers some feedback, how do you think Freddie Hamilton, Alex Friesen, Steve Shipley, David Pacan and Jason Wilson have developed over the course of the season?
SC: (Steve breaks down each player)
Hamilton: Outstanding year, the Sharks stole him in the 5th round last year and his development and two way play have been outstanding. He has complemented Ryan Stome very well. You can't argue with 38 goals and an 80+ point campaign.
Friesen: Some injury woes plagued him late, but he's such a gamer. One thing with Friesen is that he was prone to emotional outbursts that affected his game. He has channeled those outbursts and retained his edge and intensity. He's still a top face off guy.
Shipley: A better last part of the season than earlier part for sure. I think he needs to use his size and strength more to his advantage. He had a solid season overall. I think he will have a big play off for the Ice Dogs.
Wilson: Also had a better second half than first. He was such a disappointment the first half of the season, but really turned it on in the second half and became a very nice complementary player to Hamilton and Strome. He's ready for the AHL next year
Pacan: Has had a very solid, solid season. He does use his size and strength effectively and has very good hands. He's really developed well over the course of the year. The move to Florida will be a good one for him. I can see him in the NHL two-three years down the road
BO - Last question about IceDog players (before I grill you about some of the players in the league). I think Jesse Graham has been one of the most impressive 16 year olds in the league this season. Would you agree?
SC - Yes I would. When first drafted by the Ice Dogs, I looked at this player who looked all of 12 and wondered how he would stack up in the OHL. He has opened my eyes in terms of his positioning and ability to move bigger, stronger, older guys off the puck. His first pass out of the zone and vision are outstanding. He'll get 50 points next year!
BO - OK, let’s do some rapid fire (Your partner Ed should be used to this from OTR) on other happenings from around the OHL. First question; would you draft Gabriel Landeskog first overall if you were an NHL GM?
SC - No, I'm not convinced that he is 100% healthy. He missed time in the second half of the season and the World Junior's with injury. On the flip side, he's been outstanding for Kitchener this year. I think Nugent-Hopkins and Couturier would be the safer bet.
BO - Who is the absolute best player in the OHL right now?
SC - Ryan Strome. Call me bias, but the things he does with the puck remind me of the skill set Matt Duchene, Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin had.
BO - Who deserves the Red Tilson trophy as of right now?
SC - Tyler Toffoli...simply the most dangerous sniper in the OHL this year. Has maintained a high level of play with key players around him injured.
BO - Give me a sleeper from the OHL for the 2011 NHL Draft. A guy not many people are talking about, but that you feel is going to make an excellent NHL player (and draft pick).
SC - Injury aside, I think Matt Puempel is going to be an outstanding late first round pick. Also, Stuart Percy is the type of standup, reliable defenseman who could be a bit of a sleeper
BO - Who’s been the most impressive 16 year old in the OHL this year?
SC - Alex Galchenyuk turned 17 late February, but lived up to the hype of a #1 pick and produced on a team that was not particularly good. Jesse Graham also got major minutes, particularly on the power play for a very good team.
BO - Last question, and I’m putting you guys on the spot again. Who’s going to meet in the OHL finals?
SC - Tough to bet against Mississauga as I can't see anyone beating them in a 7 game series. As for the Western Conference? Wow, too tough to call. How about a Wild Card team in Erie! Kitchener and Saginaw spiraled downward towards the end of the season, and Erie, behind Sadikov beats Owen Sound in 7.
Thanks so much to Steve for his time. If you've got the OHL Action Pack, make sure you catch an IceDog game this playoff season to see the great work he and his crew members deliver.