By Chris Umpierre
ESTERO, Fla. – When Don MacAdam and his partner purchased the Dayton Bombers three years ago, the franchise was in disarray. The Bombers went a combined 50-79-15 during their previous two seasons.
“We had to rebuild from the very bottom,” said MacAdam, who is also Dayton’s coach and general manager. “The fans didn’t believe in the organization.”
Thanks to the signing of captain Greg Labenski, getting quality players from its NHL affiliate and some luck, Dayton has made a monumental turnaround this season. Not only did the Bombers reach the postseason for the first time since 2001-02, they have advanced to the American Conference Finals for just the second time in franchise history.
“You have no idea,” MacAdam said about how much personal satisfaction he feels. “Everybody in this sport suffers tough times. The things that happened to us, looking back, are no big deal. It’s just the course of life and life is beautiful.”
Life is beautiful today. It wasn’t for the Bombers during the previous two seasons.
“We had a hard time attracting quality players because players didn’t see Dayton as a hockey destination, as they do with Florida,” MacAdam said. “People will not come to a team in Dayton to play hockey if it’s not a quality organization.
“There are players in the lineup for Florida who I talked to last summer that I don’t know if they’d say it but I would be shocked if they didn’t say, ‘OK, I’ll listen to this guy but I’m not going to Dayton. I’m going to Fort Myers.’ ”
MacAdam said things started to change last summer when he signed Labenski, a well-respected veteran who just finished winning a United Hockey League championship with Kalamazoo, Mich. Labenski also has played for Canada’s national team.
“Players knew, ‘OK, if Greg Labenski is going to play in Dayton there must be something going on there,’ ” MacAdam said.
Two other factors played roles in Dayton’s resurgence. The Bombers got better players from their NHL affiliate, the Columbus Blue Jackets, and they got lucky in landing one of the ECHL’s premier goalies.
It began when Dayton’s equipment manager left to sign with the American Hockey League’s Rochester Americans last summer. A few weeks later, the equipment manager called MacAdam and said that goalie Adam Berkhoel, who was with Rochester at the time, was looking for an ECHL team to play for.
“So I’m on the phone with Rochester immediately,” MacAdam said with a smile.Berkhoel ended up winning the 2006-07 ECHL Goaltender of the Year and was the Most Valuable Player at the All-Star Game.
Berkhoel isn’t surprised by Dayton’s turnaround.
“We had a lot of guys come in with a lot of talent and experience,” Berkhoel said. “I think that’s contributed a great deal to our success. We have that winning mentality.”