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Junior hockey: Grizzlies ready to hit the ground roaring in Rochester

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Craig Patrick, co-owner of the Austin Bruins and Rochester Grizzlies

The Rochester Ice Hawks aren’t going anywhere, but they are changing names.

And they’re getting a strong new ownership group to back them.

Craig Patrick and Mike Cooper, the co-owners of the Austin Bruins of the North American Hockey League, have purchased the Ice Hawks franchise.

And an agreement with the Rochester Recreation Center has been put in place, similar to the agreement the Ice Hawks played under. Cooper and Patrick will rebrand the franchise as the Rochester Grizzlies; they’ll begin play this fall, with a three-year agreement in place with the city of Rochester and the Rec Center.

"We want to provide a great product on the ice but get into the community, as well," Cooper said. "That’s been a big part of what we’ve done in Austin. We’re over 500 service hours that our players have provided into the community, and that’s a big deal to us, to have our players out doing that.

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"It’s about the hockey, but it’s also about being a part of the community."

The Rochester Parks and Recreation Department board of commissioners needed little question or discussion time at its meeting Thursday to pass the agreement. The only question raised came from board member Angela Gupta, with a chuckle: "Why the Grizzlies nickname?"

Cooper said he and Patrick chose Grizzlies because it keeps their teams’ nicknames in the bear family, and there will be quite a bit of interaction between the coaching staffs of the two teams. And players who are on the borderline of playing in the NA3HL or NAHL, will be able to move back and forth between the Bruins and Grizzlies quickly.

The proximity of the two teams also will allow the coaching staffs to communicate, possibly attend the other team’s practices on occasion, and run similar on-ice systems, making the transition smoother for those borderline players who may bounce between leagues during the season.

"We want to put a good team on the ice, be competitive," Cooper said. "That was the first thing we looked and said, ‘If we’re going to do this, we have to do it right or not do it at all.’"

One noticeable item in the Grizzlies’ agreement with the Rec Center — which runs through the 2020-21 season — is the division of concession and alcohol sales.

The city of Rochester will operate the concession stands and receive those profits. The Grizzlies will operate, and receive the profits from, beer sales, as well as being allowed to serve one specialty food item that cannot be sold at the city-operated concessions.

The Grizzlies also will be allowed to sell merchandise at their home games, as well as have dedicated locker room and office space for their coaches and staff.

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A QUICK TRANSACTION

Cooper said the Bruins were approached a short time ago by league executives from the NAHL and NA3HL about the possibility of purchasing the Ice Hawks franchise. He said he and Patrick never considered moving the Bruins to Rochester and moving the NA3HL franchise to Austin. The Bruins play in the NAHL, a Tier II junior league, which is a higher level of play than the NA3HL, a Tier III league.

"We weren’t actively looking for an opportunity like this," Cooper said, "but I think the league recognizes Rochester as an important market for junior hockey. And with us being so close — and to toot our own horn a little bit — we’ve done a pretty good job in Austin. We hope to bring that level of professionalism over here to Rochester."

The ownership group has little time to spare in getting started on the 2018-19 season, with the NA3HL Draft just a few weeks away.

Garrett Patrick, a former Bruins goalie and co-owner Craig Patrick’s son, will be the Grizzlies’ first employee who is stationed in Rochester full-time.

Cooper said the team’s management group is immediately searching for a coaching staff, with the help of Bruins coaches Steve Howard, Al Rooney and Keenan Kelly. Howard and Rooney both have experience coaching in the NA3.

"Garrett will be our director of operations," Cooper said. "He has junior hockey experience and has been around the Bruins a lot. We plan to hit the ground running right away, starting to get out into the community and start actively searching for a head coach right away. The draft is coming up; we need to get players tendered. ... That’s all coming quickly."

END OF THE ICE HAWKS ERA

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The sale also means an end to the Ice Hawks name. Former owner Michael "Doc" Fatis founded the Ice Hawks — originally named the Minnesota Ice Hawks — in 1996 in St. Peter. The team played three seasons there before moving to Rochester. It was a member of the Minnesota Junior Hockey League until that league disbanded in 2015. The Ice Hawks joined the NA3HL in the 2015-16 season and have struggled since having their league membership approved deep into the summer of 2015, which limited their staff’s time for recruiting and draft preparation. The Ice Hawks went 6-39-2 this season and missed the playoffs for the first time. The Bruins are 30-19-8 under first-year head coach Howard and have clinched a spot in the NAHL playoffs. They close their regular season with three games this week.

Mike Cooper, Austin Bruins and Rochester Grizzlies
Mike Cooper, co-owner of the Austin Bruins and Rochester Grizzlies

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