The past couple of vacations were shorter than usual for the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs.
That’s maybe the lone hardship for a hockey team that keeps playing for league championships.
For the second year in a row, no Dawgs are howling about the shortened offseason.
Last May, the Rail Yard Dawgs celebrated their first SPHL championship by clinching the best-of-five series with a 2-1 win over the Birmingham Bulls in front of 5,394 loyal and rabid fans at the Berglund Center.
The championship came a year after the Dawgs — as they are known to most loyal fans — reached the SPHL’s championship series for the first time, losing that series in four games to the Peoria Rivermen.
On Friday, Roanoke begins its quest for a second straight President’s Cup on home ice against the Fayetteville Marksmen. In the pregame, the team’s championship banner will be unfurled at the arena, giving everyone one more chance to revel in what represents a triumph that came because of a unique combination of commitment among the franchise’s ownership group, front office, coaching staff, players and — most importantly — fans.
Dawgs team captain Mac Jansen said last week that claiming a second trophy now becomes just as important as winning that first.
“I wouldn’t want to say that losing [the championship series] was easier,” he said. “but when you win it, and you get a little taste, all you want to do is get back.”
In the realm of team sports, reaching a peak such as the Rail Yard Dawgs did last spring often involves crawling out of some valleys along the way, including dealing with injuries, slumps and problems with team chemistry.
Back in 2020, Roanoke, like the rest of the world, found itself in a depression.
The rumors of the incoming danger started to surface over a weekend that the Dawgs’ players and coaches were probably not paying much attention to the news cycle and an emerging story about a growing health emergency that had reached the West Coast.
The team arrived home from Illinois early Monday morning after one of the more treacherous road trips of the season — two games in Moline followed by a rare Sunday afternoon tilt in Peoria against the league-leading Rivermen. After splitting its games with the Quad City Storm, Roanoke fell 3-2 to Peoria but had reason to be encouraged about what lay ahead.
One more road trip to Birmingham remained before the final seven games of the season would be played at home.
The scheduling definitely favored the Rail Yard Dawgs, who were on the cusp of clinching a fourth straight trip to the SPHL playoffs. Interest in the team had gradually increased since the league announced in 2015 that it was placing a franchise in Roanoke and played its first game at the Berglund Center in the fall of 2016.
The Dawgs averaged nearly 4,000 in attendance in their six February home games, including a season-high 5,561 on Feb. 22. As the playoffs drew closer, so did interest in the team.
On Wednesday, March 11, the momentum came to a screeching halt.
News broke early that evening that the mysterious virus still unknown to most Americans — COVID-19 — had infected movie superstar Tom Hanks. A few hours later, the NBA suspended its basketball season after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the same virus prior to a scheduled game in Oklahoma City.
The next day, college basketball followed the example of the NBA, as conference tournaments were put on hold. Major League Baseball, which had reached the homestretch of spring training, also ceased operations.
The SPHL followed suit, opting to put the weekend slate of games on hold, but there was still hope in the early days of the pandemic.
As was the case with many minor league franchises around the country, the 2019-20 season never resumed.
Games put on ice
So what had been considered good news just a few days earlier — hosting a long homestand to wrap up the regular season — became a financial crisis. The seven games that were never played represented 25% of the Dawgs’ home schedule, general manager Mickey Gray said.
“When I voted with the board of governors to cancel the remainder of the 2019-20 season — and when you get into this, you never think you’re going to have to do something like that,” Gray said. “Both personally and professionally that was very difficult to do.”
As the country inched its way back over the next year from mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing and remote work schedules, professional sports began its recovery as well.
With several franchises located in conservative-leaning Southern states with fewer COVID restrictions, the SPHL announced that the teams that were allowed to resume playing would.
But in Virginia, restrictions were still in place when the next season was set to begin in October 2020, and the Rail Yard Dawgs had no choice but to suspend play.
Without a team, all the Dawgs’ players became free agents. That could have been the case as well for the front office, which would have been understandable.
As Gray put it, there would be at least 18 months in between the Dawgs’ last home game in February 2020 and their first game back in October 2021. Laying off the front office would have been understandable, but that’s not the path the principal owners of the team, led by longtime NHL player Jamie McGinn, chose to handle the situation.
“The very next morning [after the 2019-20 season was canceled], I got a phone call from [Jamie], and he said, ‘I know yesterday was a bad day, but I just want you to know we’ve got you guys. All the checks are going to clear. If you need anything give me a call,'” Gray said. “When your owner calls you the day after you voted to cancel an entire season and cost [the owners] hundreds of thousands of dollars, for him to come back and say that meant a lot to us.”
Gray said he and his staff were determined to make sure they were earning their paychecks.
He and team vice president Alexandra Crutchfield spent hours going through every detail of the franchise’s operation.
“We joke about it now, but it was miserable at the moment,” Gray said. “But we were very direct that we didn’t want to waste that time. So we locked ourselves in a room with a giant whiteboard, and dissected and argued and ripped apart every aspect of our operation.”
The results of the work started to show once the Dawgs announced that the team would begin play again in October 2021, Gray said.
Strategies for its full-time staff — usually about six or seven people — to be as efficient as possible were put in place, as were ways for its two-person ticketing and merchandise team to increase engagement with fans. Gray said Crutchfield also delved into the world of social media with the goal of finding better ways to engage with the public there.
“While I hated COVID and that time was awful for a lot of people, we were fortunate to be able to [remain] employed and take that deep dive and look at what we were doing and what we could do better,” Gray said.
The man is here to coach
The McGinns also kept paying head coach Dan Bremner, who had been named the team’s head coach in the middle of the 2017-18 season and had led the Dawgs to the playoffs the two years prior to the COVID shutdown.
Providing Roanoke with a winning hockey team had become just a part of his mission in Southwest Virginia.
Shortly after arriving in town, he co-founded the Vinton-based Virginia Hockey Lab, which was there not just to benefit his team, but also to help build interest in ice hockey throughout the Roanoke Valley.
With no players of his own to coach downtown, Bremner shifted his attention to anyone else with a pair of skates and a stick.
“I kind of buried myself in youth hockey,” Bremner said. “I coached probably every team at some point during that COVID season, from kids just learning how to skate all the way up to 18-U teams. I was able to travel and go to tournaments with them. It was a great opportunity for me to embed myself into that youth hockey community.
“I never stopped coaching, and it was awesome to see them grow. … There were all kinds of restrictions on these poor kids, yet they loved the game and were able to get through it.”
McGinn said he had admired the dedication and approach Bremner had displayed since arriving in Roanoke. What he saw during the pandemic was just as important.
“One of the things we always talked about for our coach was that he had to be passionate about the game, he’s got to be well prepared, he’s got to be committed to Roanoke, and great in the community,” McGinn said. “I think Dan checks all of those boxes.
“He’s definitely fiery, but the thing we love about him is that he’s helping out with youth hockey, and he’s instilled himself to where he’s a celebrity in this community. People are watching what he’s doing all the time, so the fact that he’s giving back to the community and helping coach for us is huge. Now they all want to come to the games and play hockey.
“Maybe in the future, we can get one of these kids to be a Dawg one day.”
Bremner also kept in touch with many of the players on his team that parted ways early in 2020.
Dawgs for life
Jansen, along with veteran Dawgs Matt O’Dea and CJ Stubbs, found work in the Federal Prospects Hockey League, which also had several teams that were allowed to play. The trio helped the Georgia-based Columbus River Dragons to the Ignite Cup championship. Jansen even had a goal in the last game of the final series.
But once the season ended, Jansen said he and his longtime teammates were back to being Dawgs.
Bremner said getting some of the former players back was important, especially when he discovered that rebuilding the team’s chemistry and getting back to where things stood 18 months earlier was more difficult than he expected.
“We are pretty fortunate to have a core group of guys who are pretty set on being Dawgs,” Jansen said. “We have plans as a group and as a team to do some special things. We’ve understood that with this group, we can do special things. The past two years, with last year winning it and the year before that being right there.”
Jansen, Stubbs and O’Dea all returned for the 2021-22 season, as did right winger Josh Nenadal, among others.
When they did eventually get back into town, they found that even though the team had been gone for a while, the fans had not forgotten them. That part of the Dawgs’ operation may be the most important piece of the whole puzzle.
The Dawgs and their rabid fans
When the McGinn brothers — Jamie, Tye and Brock — and their father, Bob McGinn, first started looking into buying and placing a minor league hockey franchise, they received an invitation from Berglund Center general manager Robyn Schon to visit the Roanoke Valley, an area the Canadian family knew nothing about, and see what the area might provide them. The brothers, who have all played in the National Hockey League, were interested in investing in a community that would support the endeavor. They made a deal with the Berglund Center with the plan to begin play in the fall of 2016.
As soon as the agreement was in place, the Rail Yard Dawgs Booster Club came into being, with big plans on how to make its new hockey team feel welcome.
Just as the Dawgs’ run to championship had its ups and downs, so did the spirit of hockey fans in the Roanoke Valley. Since the mid-1960s, hockey franchises had come and gone. There had been a Roanoke Valley-based team in the ECHL for more than two decades between 1983 and 2004, but other than a one-year try with the Roanoke Valley Vipers in the now-defunct United Hockey League in 2005, local fans did not have a professional team to root for.
Still, the Dawgs’ booster club had a solid base right from the start; the club’s mission has changed little since its inception. Members got to work right away in finding housing options for the incoming players. When the Dawgs got to their homes, they found them stocked with food and other household items. After home games, the team had a meal waiting for them.
And during the games, the boosters and other season ticket holders made sure the Dawgs knew they were playing at home.
“One of the walls we had to break down was that fans didn’t have trust in [past] owners,” Jamie McGinn said. “Then you get a few Canadians coming in who want to own a team in Roanoke, Virginia — I think they put the wall up right away.
“So our commitment to the Roanoke Valley was that we’re going to be here for a long time. I think we were still struggling the first couple of years to break down that wall. But then we signed another lease, and we kept our employees hired during COVID. Now people know that we’re committed and that we love the city.”
When COVID put everything on hold, the Dawgs found out their fans didn’t just go away.
Gray said he discovered just how strong the club’s bond with its fans had become when his staff started the process of refunding ticket holders for the lost games in 2020.
“We were fortunate for our fan base,” Gray said. “We had some fans forgiving refunds for season tickets that they were owed for the games that weren’t played. We had fans who told us to hold onto the money, we know you’re coming back.
“And the amount of merchandise they were willing to buy while we were shut down to help us keep the lights on was fantastic.”
Jansen said the players found out they weren’t going to be forgotten either. Some of the team’s biggest boosters even made their way to Georgia to catch some River Dragons games. And when the team resumed operations on Oct. 15, 2021, 4,136 fans were there to see it.
“It’s just a growing, passionate fan base,” Jansen said. “Some of us who have been here for quite a while have seen the rise of how passionate these fans are and how hungry they are for a successful sports team. … We don’t pack the place every night, but it sure sounds packed. When you get 3,000 or 4,000 fans in here, it sounds like there’s 10,000.”
There probably wasn’t much talk about the COVID days back in May when the Dawgs needed two wins to claim their first championship — just a lot of cheering. With the series tied at 1-1, the Dawgs beat Birmingham 5-4 in overtime to win Game 3, then clinched the title the next night. The attendance average for the two nights was 5,306.
And among the fans in the stands were all three McGinn brothers.
“I don’t know if there’s a word in the English language to describe how happy, excited, etc. … that they were,” Gray said of his bosses. “It was kind of cool. All three McGinn brothers — all of them who have played hockey at the highest level — were able to come down and accept the trophy. They got to be fans and sit here and watch this. It was great.”
As the Rail Yard Dawgs’ seventh season gets underway, the fans know their team will be in the valley for an extended amount of time. Prior to this season, the two sides agreed to extend the relationship between the club and arena for five more years, keeping the Dawgs in the Berglund Center through the 2027-28 season. This contract followed a pair of three-year deals that were made prior to the 2016-17 and 2019-20 seasons.
“It wasn’t a high-pressure kind of thing,” Gray said. “We wanted to be here, they wanted us here, and we made a deal that benefits everyone.”
As usual, training camp has been a slog for the Dawgs, Jansen said, but it will all be worth it when the puck is dropped on Friday. He’s ready to hear the home crowd cheer on the Dawgs, while making life rough on the visiting Marksmen.
“That’s why a lot of the guys play this game,” Jansen said. “To play in front of families who care about you.”