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The OHL in Niagara

Diehard hockey fans around Western New York are very much aware that major junior hockey is an exciting brand of the sport to watch. Just across the border, the 20-team Ontario Hockey League is one of three leagues in Canada where young players can develop their skills and showcase their talents for NHL teams that come scouting and come drafting.

It is an exciting brand of hockey; the games are played in intimate venues, ticket prices are reasonable, the beer is cold (and Canadian) and, with most of the teams located in smaller communities, the passion for the teams and the rivalries that ensue can be fierce.

Area fans haven’t had a team to follow nearby since the Niagara Falls Thunder departed for Erie back in the early 1990s, meaning that the greater Toronto area was the nearest major destination for OHL action.

But all that changed this past season, when the Mississauga team relocated to the Niagara region to become the “Niagara Ice Dogs.” They now play in the Gatorade Garden City Complex in St. Catharines, a crusty old barn better known to fans as Jack Gatecliff Arena.

“The move came out of necessity,” explains team president Denise Burke. “Eugene Melnyk [of Ottawa Senators fame] became the owner of two teams, the one in Mississauga and the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors, which was against league by-laws. The Toronto arena was beyond inadequate, so that franchise relocated to the Hershey Centre [in Mississauga], and that left the Ice Dogs looking for a new owner and a new home.”

Burke and her husband Bill sold a successful printing company in Toronto, and, still young, made the foray into sports management and team ownership. “Let’s just say it’s been a real education,” Burke laughs. “We had three short months starting with a blank slate, having to identify a market, secure an arena and sign a lease. Then we had to staff the organization, find sponsors, sell tickets. About the only good thing is we inherited a pretty good team and hockey department, so the on-the-ice product has been great.”

Rumors abounded that casino interests in the Falls were going to build a new OHL capable arena. Another idea had been floated that a team would be placed in a proposed facility in Tonawanda, New York. Nothing has come of these ideas, and league officials were scrambling to find a new home for the Ice Dogs during the offseason. The two finalists for the franchise were North Bay and St. Catharines. The team signed a five-year lease to play at the Gatorade Complex.

More than a half-century old, with just over 3,000 seats, the venue pales in comparison to some of the gleaming new arenas that have opened or are planned around the OHL, including the jaw-dropping, 12,000-seat John Labatt Centre in downtown London and the new GM Centre in Oshawa. So exactly what are the plans for a replacement venue? Burke acknowledged the need for a new facility, but was very tentative on specifics. “We realize that there will have to be talks on a new facility for the team at some point, but for now we and the city have made substantial improvements to this arena, and our immediate goal is to build this organization and make it successful here in St. Catharines.”

OHL sports enthusiast Kevin Jordan, who runs a fan travel Web site at, is somewhat more skeptical. Says Jordan, “Like in the big leagues, these OHL teams are big business these days and rely on the ticket sales and sponsorships and premium seating. If St. Catharines wants to keep their team for the long haul, they will have to step it up and find an answer to their arena issue, otherwise some other city will.”

Yet it hasn’t take long for Garden City fans to embrace their new team. On the night of our visit, the standing-room-only sign was up on the window long before the faceoff. Inside, every seat was full, and the standing room area ringing the very narrow aisleway at the top of the seating bowl was also jammed. With a steep seat pitch and low ceiling, fans are right on top of the action, and the building is loud and intense.

Community relations director Jon Kursikowski relocated with the team from Mississauga, and said there is no comparison between the two markets. “There it was always tough filling seats. Here the fans are so enthusiastic. Hear the noise in there. Isn’t it great?”

The OHL season runs through mid March and Ice Dogs tickets run from $12 to $17. Kursikowski says the team will gladly welcome visitors and fans from Buffalo to check out a game. “We’ll even accept your American dollars at par,” he joked.



■ Quite a storm brewing up north about phenom Johnny Tavares and the fact that he misses the age deadline for the upcoming amateur draft by a couple of days. Taro suggests this remedy for those who wish him eligible: Find someone in Danny Almonte’s crew and work something out.

■ Several Sabres passed through the OHL on the way to becoming Sabres including Brian Campbell, Tim Connolly, Adam Mair, Daniel Paille, Andrew Peters and Derek Roy.