IceDogs' popularity uncorks debate over new arena

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:45 AM ET

It would be easy to take things slow in wine country, where the best stuff in the bottle can be left to age.

But a year-and-a-half on site, Niagara is outgrowing its Dog ice house. Old Jack Gatecliff Arena in downtown St. Catharines -- the OHL IceDogs' home and granddaddy of them all after ancient Windsor Arena hit the mat -- has felt a squeeze from crowds not seen since Marcel Dionne's junior Black Hawks days.

Last Thursday's home game with London had the fire marshal-approved 3,145 bodies armed with tickets long before the Knights acquired world junior star John Tavares.

Could the 'Dogs have jammed 2,000 more into the rink if they had the space?

"Undoubtedly," said team owner Bill Burke. "I really believe we'll be hearing something in the next six months on a new rink."

The debate rages. Should the city pony up? Or private enterprise? Hey, the team's called "Niagara" -- shouldn't the whole region chip in?

There's no nail-biting deadline looming. Burke and his wife Denise -- the team president and 2008 OHL executive of the year -- have three seasons left on the Gatecliff lease.

When they bought the team and moved it from Mississauga, they knew exactly where they were going and the hands they had to shake.

"I never really liked the idea of the Mississauga IceDogs," Burke said. "I knew there was a history in St. Catharines. There was junior hockey here before and the people don't want to have their hearts broken. They want to see first if you're going to stay."

The club brass proved it with their postal codes.

IceDogs GM Dave Brown moved to the region quickly.

The Aurora-based Burkes had a condo at first, but have set home for keeps. Coach Mario Cicchillo, despite ties to Woodbridge roots, still can't believe how he's recognized at gas stations and Tim Hortons by folks wanting to talk pucks.

The 'Dogs bark loud right now, winning eight of 10. Sardine-like home games at the creaky old joint are routine.

"Those two wins last week (against the Knights) made people believers," Burke said. "(Former Plymouth goalie and Nashville prospect) Jeremy Smith has been a big pickup for us. We wanted a winner. Especially with Alex (Pietrangelo) here. He's a special kid. When we get into a new arena, he's going to be the first number (10) we retire."

On March 1, the 'Dogs will play the Ottawa 67's at the Niagara Falls Memorial Arena, which will be torn down this year and was once home to two OHL clubs -- the Thunder and Flyers.

It's a shout out to some regional hockey history.

New rink or not, the 'Dogs have iced one of the better young teams this season. And most of the core comes back.

What kind of wine goes well with a championship run?

"(Forward) Alex Friesen is from Niagara-on-the-Lake and his parents are involved in a winery," Burke said, "so it would have to be something out of there."

AROUND THE O

Brampton's Cody Hodgson is riding a 17-game point streak but it's technically a 23-gamer if you include what he did en route to becoming the scoring champ at the world juniors in Ottawa. The Battalion forward and future Vancouver Canuck has played 32 OHL games this season and has only missed the scoresheet three times . . . No one says it's going to be easy but the league-leading Windsor Spitfires have a shot at winning 60 games to top the 2004-05 London Knights' OHL record 59. The Spits will have to win 18 of their final 20. Windsor, which plays host to the league's all-star game next Wednesday, became the first club to clinch a playoff berth this season . . . Clearly, Mississauga head coach Dave Cameron can't select a starting goalie on stats alone. Stunningly, Majors veteran Chris Carrozzi and rookie J.P. Anderson have the exact same numbers -- 2.87 goals against averages and .908 save percentages. Uncanny. The only difference? Carrozzi has appeared in 33 games and Anderson's been in 17. Only one will get the start on Feb. 13 when the club brings back its successful Paint the Rink Pink promotion to help fight breast cancer when the Majors face Barrie at the Hershey Centre.


Videos

Photos