One day Dan Bremner was in Canada, enjoying his time off from an assistant coaching position at Ohio University, a job just several months old after his playing days on the ice ended. The next thing he knows, Bremner is back in his car, heading to Ohio pick up his gear before driving to Roanoke – where he is now the head coach of the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs.
Bremner, who played six years of minor league hockey and finished as a player-coach for the Peoria Rivermen just last spring, replaced Sam Ftorek, the only coach the Dawgs had since they first hit the ice last season.
But the Rail Yard Dawgs sputtered again coming out of the gate this season after missing the Southern Professional Hockey League playoffs last year as an expansion team. General manager Mickey Gray – who knew Bremner from time they spent together in Peoria, where Gray was previously employed – and Dawgs upper management including team president Bob McGinn made the decision that a change was needed.
Gray, who was also part of the decision-making process to hire Ftorek, said the move to let him go was “very difficult. The bottom line is, Sam is a great guy and I have nothing but the utmost respect for him. To make that decision because it’s best for the team is difficult but it had to be made. We were not getting the results we were looking for.”
For his part, Bremner – just 31 and still looking very much like a player – called it “a complete whirlwind of a few days,” before landing in Roanoke just before the start of a three game road trip. Bremner said he reached out to the coaches and players he has dealt with over the years, asking their advice on how to approach a situation like this – joining an organization after the season is well underway.
Bremner also said his first few weeks on the job will give him a chance to evaluate his roster and see what changes might be in store there. Ftorek let starting goaltender Ryan deMelo go shortly before he was fired; several other players have been called up to the higher-level ECHL already, so change has been one constant for the Dawgs this season. He said the “overwhelming advice” received was to communicate his expectations, and then hold to them. Several players on the Dawgs (including captain Nick Schneider and Steve Mele) were familiar to Bremner from previous minor league stops.
Finding an identity for the team is a must; Bremner, whom Gray called a tough guy, said the era of the classic “goon” is over, “but I played really hard and I loved the game.” At the SPHL level of pro hockey where there’s not much money involved, Bremner said a love for the game is a must. “The biggest compliment I ever got [from another player] is that they hated playing against me,” he recalled. The new head coach also said he “became close” to Gray in Peoria, no doubt creating a comfort factor when the Rail Yard Dawgs GM felt a change was needed behind the bench. “We’re looking to bring some of that grit and determination to the team. I think that’s going to be an important next step for us,” said Gray of the new hire.
As for what Bremner expects: “I want speed, I want physicality and the most important thing to me is passion – you have to love the game. The hard work, the pain, love it all.” Bremner would like to see his team not get down so early in a contest, as Roanoke is wont to do, since that lets the opposition dictate their style of play more to some extent. “Then you’re battling back the whole game.” As for his sudden rise from player to assistant college coach to the head man in Roanoke: “the only word I have for it is whirlwind. I keep saying that, that’s how it feels. [But} I’m so grateful for the opportunity. It’s going to be trial by fire.”