A year after the announcement that professional hockey was returning to Roanoke, the Roanoke Railyard Dawgs are set to hit the ice for their franchise and season opener on October 21st at 7:05pm.
It’s a totally new franchise that takes up shop in the Berglund Center, with an ownership group that includes a professional hockey background, an energetic coach who has lofty goals and everything in place to make this a successful run in the Southern Professional Hockey League.
The primary new owners, members of the Canadian McGinn family that includes dad Bob along with his three sons, Jamie, Tye and Brock, have made their plans clear during the last 12 months. They expect to be in Roanoke a long time.
While Bob, the team president, owns 11 percent of the team, Jamie (37 percent ownership), Tye (12 percent) and Brock (7 percent) bring plenty to the table for the Dawgs, the trio of sons all having NHL playing experience.
The Railyard Dawgs will have a 28-game regular season home schedule running from October to early April in the 10-team league that runs from Florida, Alabama and Mississippi in the south to Illinois, Ohio and Indiana in the north. For those looking for geographical rivalries, the closest two teams to Roanoke are franchises in Knoxville, TN and Fayetteville, NC.
With less than a month to go before opening night, I got insight on the upcoming season from Railyard Dawgs vice president of Business and Hockey Operations, Mickey Gray, as well as the Dawgs new head coach, Sam Ftorek.
Both say everything is falling into place and Roanoke is showing its support.
“The overall sense of excitement within the community has been the most exciting thing I’m seeing,” Gray noted. “Season ticket sales have exceeded every goal our ownership and staff has set. It continued on through the summer and we are just shy of 900 season tickets.”
Gray says a variety of promotions are in place to make hockey nights in the Berglund Center a complete entertainment venue.
“Our game plan is to have a wide variety of activities,” Gray said. “We want to keep things fresh, exciting and family-friendly. We would love to see a sellout on October 21st for Opening Night. We have a pre-game show planned with live music and other family-friendly activities.”
The Berglund Center itself will look different to hockey fans. New seats, concrete, dashers, plexiglass and scoreboard will make the venue more fan-friendly for those in attendance.
And, corporate sponsors, a key to the success of any franchise, have returned after the debacle that resulted from the former Roanoke Viper team that turned into a one-year disaster a decade ago. “We are very proud of the corporate sponsors we have so far,” Gray added. “We have been met with open arms and our sponsors are very enthusiastic and supportive of this organization.”
Gray said ticket prices vary based on seat location, with single game tickets ranging from $11 to $20 for adults. Kids’ prices start at $8.50. And, the Railyard Dawgs schedule is prime time for families with school-aged children with 22 of the 28 home dates falling on either Friday or Saturday night.
Ftorek says the excitement and remodeled Berglund Center should be appealing to prospective players. “We’re still lining up recruits as the dominos fall with the ECHL rosters,” Ftorek said. “We got 6 players through the expansion draft, and I’ll also be looking at players from the junior leagues, college ranks, free agents and others who don’t make the rosters of ECHL teams.
“One thing is certain,” Ftorek added. “When players arrive in Roanoke they’re going to have a great first impression and see that this is a first-class operation. They’ll see an arena with new lights, new scoreboard and new plexiglass. That’s big for players.”
Ftorek, a veteran of the ECHL who began his playing career with the Augusta Lynx in 1998 before making stops in Mobile, Greensboro, Gwinnette, Fresno and Cincinnati, finished his playing career with the Kalamazoo Wings in 2015. He also had playing experience in the IHL, AHL, CHL and Europe Professional League. His long stint in the ECHL brought back memories of coming to Roanoke as a visiting opponent.
“I didn’t like coming here (Roanoke) to play,” Ftorek recalled. “The fans were loud and against us. Roanoke was a miserable environment for opponents. Now, I hope they keep it up.”
Ftorek says his role as head coach in the minor leagues is unique. “My main job is to teach these players how to be pros. Help these guys to achieve their dreams, not extinguish their dreams. Be good hockey players who value the importance of the team. Our players will be involved in the community. I’d rather have a good player that is willing to learn and be part of that plan, than a great player who doesn’t fit in. I want every player to get the opportunity to move up to the next level.”
Ftorek shared his strategy for the type of play fans can expect. “We’ll have 18 players who will play a physical style and fight if they have to. I’ll look for my goalie to be the hardest worker on the team, a guy who will face 60-plus shots a game at 80 miles per hour. A goalie that can get us a win if we get to a shootout…
My goal this year is to win a championship. At this level you have one year to win before you overhaul the team and start over.”
The journey begins October 21st when the Knoxville Ice Bears invade the Berglund Center. Gray and Ftorek want a full house on hand to make it tough on the visitors. The puck drops here.