What’s old is new again with the Barrie Colts.
Marty Williamson, who coached the OHL club for six seasons beginning in 2004, was named the new general manager and head coach Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s kind of like a dream come true,” Williamson said of returning to Barrie. “We have good friends, we got family in Barrie. I’m familiar with the organization, I consider the owner a friend. It’s really an exciting time.
“We’ve got a great group of players. It’s one of those things you get excited about.”
Williamson left the Colts in 2010 to take on the role of GM and coach with the Niagara IceDogs, a position he held for the next six seasons.
After his departure from the IceDogs, he was named the head coach of the Brock University men’s hockey program in 2017. In April 2019 he would also accept a role as the Colts’ senior advisor to the director of hockey operations.
The longtime hockey coach says the opportunity to run an OHL club was too hard to pass on.
“It’s a busy time getting moved,” said Williamson, who has taken three teams to the OHL finals, won 457 games and only had four losing seasons in his 12 years between Barrie and Niagara. “I had a great relationship with Brock University, and they were outstanding to me, but this is something that I really wanted.”
“I don’t know if I would have left Brock for any other kind of situation if it wasn’t as comfortable as the Barrie situation is,” he added. “We know the pieces we have. We’ll be patient and see what pieces we have to add, if any, and we’re all on the same page.
“Rob Stewart (assistant general manager) does a great job for us and obviously (owner Howie Campbell) and I have a great relationship.”
Colts co-owner Jim Payetta said Williamson’s record speaks for itself. He led Barrie to the playoffs in each of his six seasons here and guided the 2009-10 club to 57 wins, the most ever in a single season by a Barrie team, and the OHL championship series against Windsor.
“Having a guy with that kind of track record, not only as a head coach but having the experience he’s had as a general manager and being around the league as long as he’s been around, it was just a perfect fit,” Payetta said. “I know Howie always kept a really good relationship with him after he left and went to Niagara and then out to Brock.
“When he stepped back in to help us out when (former head coach Dale Hawerchuk) fell ill, he was just the perfect candidate. We were just really happy he was (able) to come back to Barrie.”
Williamson is also taking over a team many expect will compete for an OHL title with NHL prospects Brandt Clarke, Tyson Foerster, Evan Vierling, Nicholas Porco and Ethan Cardwell leading a deep roster.
Sadly, Williamson had hoped it would be Hawerchuk and him working together, but the Hockey Hall of Famer died of cancer last August.
“The idea, when I came back, was that Dale and I were going to build this team and we kind of thought this would be one of the years we’d be peaking,” Williamson said. “We kind of thought we’d have a good year through the pandemic and have to make some decisions, and then the team was going to be very good this year.
“Obviously things didn’t go quite as planned with Dale (dying). That was a hard time for all of us in the organization. I feel I’m going to have to carry the banner for him and keep this Barrie Colt team hopefully heading towards a championship.”
The club also announced Tuesday the hiring of new assistant coach Chris Dennis along with the return of assistant coach Taylor Carnevale. David Belitski has been tapped as the club’s newest goalie coach.
Handling the duo role as GM and coach is something that is becoming rarer and rarer in the OHL. Only George Burnett (Guelph), Mike McKenzie (Kitchener), James Richmond (Mississauga) and now Williamson handle both jobs.
“It’s one of those dream type of situations,” Williamson said.
“A lot of credit goes to the people around you, because there will be times you get pulled in one direction and you might have to see a player on a trade and I’ll count on my assistant coaches to run a practice.
“That’s part of the whole group. I think having the two titles is great, but it really doesn’t mean anything. It’s a collective group that’s going to get this done and that’s the best part about it.”
Williamson said he’s thrilled to have Dennis on board with the organization. Dennis spent more than seven years in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization and was most recently an assistant coach for three seasons with the Chicago Wolves in the American Hockey League.
“Everybody I talked to, Dallas Eakin, Rocky Thompson, Peter DeBoer with Las Vegas, they really credit Chris with a lot of the work he did with the blueline in Chicago,” Williamson said.
All credited Dennis with helping defencemen Zach Whitecloud and Nicolas Hague make the jump to the Vegas Golden Knights.
“These guys developed in Chicago with Chris and then were able to step into the NHL,” Williamson added. “I think that’s important for us to have that specialty with defencemen.”
It’s something Williamson really wanted, especially with young Barrie blueliners Clarke, Connor Punnett, Ian Lemieux, Beau Akey, Grayson Tiller and import Artur Cholach.
“These are all guys that need to develop and I think I’ve hired the right guy that can do that,” he said.
Carnevale played for Williamson and the two have a long relationship.
“He’s excited to come back and it’s nice that he’s real familiar with the players, which I think will help Chris and I,” Williamson said. “Obviously I am (familiar with them), but from a distance. I haven’t been on the bench with them and gone through battles with them and Taylor’s done that.
“Taylor can really help me with the faceoffs and the forward group that we have.”
The opening of this year’s training camp on August 30th will be special, said the new Barrie bench boss, especially after last season was cancelled due to the ongoing pandemic.
While the club is set to have plenty of returning players and young prospects in camp, Williamson said he’s likely to take a wait and see approach before checking out the trade market.
The club still has no idea if star forward Tyson Foerster will return after playing more than 20 games with the Philadelphia Flyers AHL affiliate, while there’s also two years of OHL draft picks and a surplus of overagers to work out.
The club is also hoping to talk recent NHL first-round forward selections Matthew Coronato (Calgary) and Oscar Olausson (Colorado) into playing in Barrie this season.
“So let’s feel out the team, and then we obviously have the assets, a great bank of draft picks, that if there is a glaring weakness on this team that we can go out and address it,” Williamson said.
While Williamson jokes about his wife being “extremely happy to get me out of the house,” he says what he’s really looking forward to is stepping behind the bench on October 7 in Barrie on opening night.
“One of the best things from my time in Barrie was the fans and how they supported the team, so I’m really looking forward to that first game and I’m hoping for 100 per cent fans in the building,” he said. “That’s the best part. I think we’re going to have an exciting team for our fans.
“That’s one of the best parts about coming back.”