By Dave Werstine
Long Beach Press-Telegram
LONG BEACH, Calif. – The Long Beach Ice Dogs might have been swept out of the ECHL Kelly Cup Playoffs by the Alaska Aces, but, for a change, things are looking up.
After hitting rock bottom last year — both on ice and at the turnstiles — the Ice Dogs made a tremendous turnaround in 2004-05, going from a league laughingstock to a burgeoning success story.
Pick any stat, and chances are that the Ice Dogs showed dramatic improvement this year:
• A 43-20-9 record, good for second place in the West Division and third place overall. The 43 victories are two short of the previous two teams combined.
• Ninety-five points, a 44-point turnaround from last year.
• A total attendance figure of 110,074 (3,057 per game), up more than 15,000 from the previous season.
• Next year will be the team’s 10th season in Long Beach. No other sports franchise in L.B. history can claim that distinction.
Much of the credit for the Ice Dogs’ on-ice accomplishments this season has to go to coach and general manager Malcolm Cameron, who assembled a competitive team from scratch after taking over for Kevin Kaminski.
His recruiting tactics proved to be top-notch, bringing in high-quality rookies, burgeoning young talent and key veterans while finding a chemistry that had the Ice Dogs among the top teams all season.
They spent time as the ECHL’s No. 1 team for a spell and were atop the West Division for a much longer time before settling into their final position. They went on to oust the defending Kelly Cup champion Idaho Steelheads in the first round of the playoffs in four games before being eliminated by Alaska, which won all three games of the series by the narrowest of margins.
“Going from 27th to third (in the overall league rankings), it doesn’t get much better than that,” Cameron said. “We were an expansion franchise on the hockey operations side with a new coach and new players (only defenseman Trevor Read returned from last year’s team and he was released at midseason) — no different than the (last-place Victoria) Salmon Kings. To start from scratch and reach 95 points is amazing.”
While Cameron, who received a two-year contract extension recently, isn’t one to pat himself on the back for a job well done, Ice Dogs president Tony Soares didn’t have a problem passing out accolades for Cameron — who finished third in the Coach of the Year balloting — and his team.
“Everyone is very pleased with the way things worked out,” Soares said. “We would have liked to have gone further in the playoffs, but looking back where we ended up last year and the job Malcolm did this year, we couldn’t be more pleased.
“It all starts and ends with Malcolm. He did a great job recruiting — and a great job coaching. We thought we were in the best division in the league, from one to seven; all the teams were good. And to come out with the third-best record in the league shows how good a job he did. We are glad to have him locked up for two more years.”
Of the Ice Dogs’ outstanding rookie class that included Steeve Villeneuve, David Walker, Marco Rosa and Nathan Martz, Rosa stood out. He made the All-Star Game and the ECHL All-Rookie Team, finished second on the Ice Dogs’ scoring list and was the ECHL Rookie of the Year runner-up.
Cameron also signed some talented young players who burst onto the scene and made a name for themselves, like Evan Cheverie, who led the Ice Dogs in scoring with 68 points, and ECHL Goalie of the Year Chris Madden, who was traded late in the season while he was on assignment in the AHL and wasn’t expected to return.
Cameron also brought in key veterans such as Chris Kenady, Joe Cardarelli and NHL vet Bill Lindsay, and was solely responsible for the Ice Dogs’ prosperous affiliation with the Montreal Canadiens and their AHL affiliate in Hamilton that sent young stars like Cory Urquhart, Michael Lambert, Olivier Michaud, Matty Shasby and Christian Larrivee to Long Beach. It was the first affiliation for the Ice Dogs since their days in the IHL.
“It was a tremendous positive with those guys, and I am looking forward to hopefully having the affiliation next year,” Cameron said. “I enjoyed working with (the Canadiens). We are going to take it one step at a time, but I am going to let them know of our tremendous interest in having a partnership with them again.”
If it is possible, Cameron anticipates having an even better team next season. Much of that optimism stems from the fact that he plans on keeping a core of key players to build around.
And he won’t wait until the summer to get started.
“Next week next season begins,” he said.
But who comes back remains to be seen.
“I always like to have some guys back,” Cameron said. “But with success comes opportunity. Guys who had good years will generate opportunities (elsewhere).
“But we should be able to recruit better than last season because of our success level — and (because the ECHL’s veteran rule is changing, going from 288 games played to 260 and a limit of four vets per team), there will be a multitude of players out there.”
While coaches and players always strive to win, that can’t always be said for the front office.
After a pair of losing seasons — the first in franchise history — the Ice Dogs moved from getting their finances in order to putting a competitive team back on the ice, even going so far as promising season ticket-holders a playoff guarantee.
Their renewed commitment to excellence paid dividends, as both sponsorships and attendance rose this season. And expectations are that they will continue to increase, meaning the Ice Dogs have a viable future in Long Beach.
“We like our direction on and off the ice,” said Soares, noting the blue ice at the Long Beach Arena and the team’s TV deal with KVMD should return next season. “And the key is to keep that trend going.
“More people came to games this year. We are not where we need to be, where we want to be, but we are getting close to becoming a break-even franchise. We think that we will be there in the ’05-’06 season. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, which is nice to see for a change.”
Soares said the NHL lockout wasn’t the attendance boon many had thought it would be, but still the Ice Dogs averaged 3,057 per game. According to Soares, the club needs to have a per-game attendance figure of 3,300 to 3,400 to break even. He anticipates the season-ticket base to go up from 1,000 to 1,250 or more next season, which would put the Ice Dogs in the range they need to be in.
One of the biggest reasons for the Ice Dogs’ off-ice success this year is that the team had success on the ice. That didn’t go unnoticed.
“No doubt in our market, you need a winner to get support,” Soares said. “If we put a good product on the ice — we are confident Malcolm will have a very competitive team next year — we think we can keep going in the right direction.”
Next season will be the 10th in Long Beach for the Ice Dogs, who have seen a pair of minor-league baseball teams and a minor-league basketball team come and go.
The Ice Dogs have one year left on their lease at the Long Beach Arena, the second-oldest facility in the ECHL, and they are already in negotiations with the city for an extension.
“We have already met and we are planning to meet again in the near future,” Soares said of the club’s negotiations with the city. “It’s something we’d like to have done earlier than later.
“Our intent is to stay in Long Beach. We have worked long and hard to make this thing feasible and I think we are getting there.”