By Jeff Blay
When the Niagara IceDogs arrived in St. Catharines in 2007, there was much skepticism around whether or not the city—or region—could support an Ontario Hockey League franchise.
The population of St. Catharines is smaller than many OHL cities. The team was playing out of an aging Jack Gatecliff Arena that barley met OHL standards. Many wondered if the fan base would be large enough—if the regionally-branded team would actually draw from surrounding communities.
And perhaps most prominent was the all-too-familiar opposition and progressive hesitation from a taxpayer base that was, indeed, overtly concerned about the prospect of ponying-up any taxpayer money to build a new arena, or invest in the team in any capacity, for that matter.
C’est la vie.
A new ‘spectator facility’, as it was referred to by those campaigning in its favour, wouldn’t benefit St. Catharines, critics said. It wouldn’t improve the downtown. It would be one-dimensional—a ‘puck palace’, as coined by my esteemed former colleague Doug Herod. It wouldn’t attract alternative entertainment—acts like The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo, City and Colour, Death Cab For Cutie and Jerry Seinfeld, or sporting events like the IIHF Women’s World U18 Championships and the Scotties Tournament of Hearts.
Most of all, the IceDogs weren’t often selling out the outdated, decrepit 3,145-seat Jack Gatecliff Arena, so how could they generate enough attendance to justify a new 5,000-seat facility? Is St. Catharines really enough of a hockey city, or Niagara enough of a hockey region?
Nearly a decade since its inaugural season, the team is playing out of the state-of-the-art Meridian Centre (which has also hosted many big-name concerts and events), drawing impressive attendance numbers, churning out top NHL prospects and is about to compete in its third Eastern Conference Final for a second shot at an OHL Championship.
This week, the team along with Mayor Walter Sendzik and fellow Niagara politicians, raised the IceDogs flag at St. Catharines City Hall.
Local businesses—many of which have popped up since the Meridian Centre was built—proudly display the team’s posters and jerseys in their windows and on their walls. On game nights, restaurants are packed and the streets are busy (good luck finding a parking spot).
While the Meridian Centre is just one of many factors (the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre, the resurgence of the local festival and arts scene, the efforts of the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce and the refreshing, progressive city council, to name a few) in St. Catharines’ ongoing, dynamic revitalization—one that’s garnered attention from national media including the Globe and Mail—it is a significant factor nonetheless.
And IceDogs owners Bill and Denise Burke played a key role in pushing for it. They believed in Niagara. They wanted to keep the team in St. Catharines and, at the very least, they contributed to exposing the potential for a vibrant downtown.
I was born and raised in St. Catharines and had just graduated high school when the IceDogs arrived. I spent two seasons interning for the team while in college for journalism. I’ve covered the team for The Standard, The Hockey News and more. I’ve seen my city go through a positive transformation over the past decade, and I now look forward to spending time downtown on weekends when I visit home from Toronto.
It may not be sole reason downtown St. Catharines is back on the metaphorical map, but I certainly believe the IceDogs have been a central part of it.
As I continue to follow the team from afar, as I cheer the boys on during their playoff run, and as I see the team’s flag flying at City Hall, it’s evident the IceDogs are more than just a hockey team—they are a valued member of the community.
Finally, we can confidently say St. Catharines is very much a hockey city, and Niagara a hockey region. Go ‘Dogs Go.
Jeff Blay is a former journalist and Communications and Digital Coordinator at Enterprise Canada. Follow him on Twitter @JeffBlay