ST. CATHARINES, ONT. - The Niagara IceDogs are playing their final season in St. Catharines if the city doesn't build a new arena, according to the owner of the team.
Bill Burke said the Ontario Hockey League will move the team rather than sign another lease contract with St. Catharines in the aging Garden City Complex.
"The Ontario Hockey League and the board of governors have told us that if we don't have a new facility, then the IceDogs can no longer continue in that existing facility," Burke said Thursday.
The do-or-die issue is coming to a head Monday, when city council debates whether to spend the dollars for a new 5,000-seat facility.
Councillors were given several building options to consider, with price tags ranging from $52.5 million to $64 million for new facilities.
Vocal arena supporters and opponents have stepped up on both sides of the debate.
The IceDogs organization turned up the heat at their home game Thursday night, launching three pro-new arena videos on the big screens featuring two players and a coach, blanketing seats with 3,000 pro-arena flyers and asking fans to contact the mayor and council.
A thousand fans were handed placards at the door that read, "Let's Build It," to wave during the second period.
Burke said the OHL has other communities that want a piece of league action and it's out of his hands if the league wants to move the IceDogs.
"The OHL always has other communities that are looking for an OHL team as an anchor tenant so they can build their community," he said. "The recommendation would that the IceDogs would have to move to one of them."
The team, which moved to St. Catharines from Mississauga in 2007 with the understanding the old complex would eventually be replaced, is coming to the end of its five-year lease with the city.
Burke has said they will sign a 20-year lease if the team can move into a new, bigger facility.
"We've been embraced. We embraced. It's been a great run for sure," Burke said. "Any other team in the OHL that has had a new facility built, they've all signed 10-year leases. And we're committing to a 20-year lease, because this is the greatest place you could possibly live.
"So we just hope it's passed and we can all just do our job."
If the city decides not to build now, Burke said the OHL won't give St. Catharines another five-year extension.
"No, it would be over. We would be in a new community next year, unfortunately."
Ontario Hockey League commissioner David Branch wouldn't speculate on the fate of the IceDogs, but said the league has been tracking developments in St. Catharines.
"The OHL's position is that we are still very much hoping that a new arena facility will be realized come Monday's deliberations by St. Catharines city council," he said.
Branch wouldn't say if there were other communities waiting in the wings to snap up the IceDogs.
"I would rather just look at the outcome of Monday's proceedings. It wouldn't be fair. It's a huge piece of business, and I don't believe it's right or reasonable that anyone should be speculating what may occur if this happens or what may not happen," he said.
"The focus has to remain on whether or not a new sport entertainment multi-use facility will serve the best interests of the city of St. Catharines and the surrounding area."
Branch did agree the IceDogs currently play in the oldest and smallest arena in the league. The team's current arena has 2,745 seats, and can accommodate 3,145 people with standing room.
"We've been fortunate as a league, where virtually every arena in the league is new or refurbished," he said.
But those against the new build, some of whom make up Citizens Against a New Arena, are concerned residents can't afford a tax increase to pay for a new facility.
They argue there are already competitive entertainment venues within driving distance that would make it tough to attract big shows to a new facility in St. Catharines. And they argue the facility's primary beneficiary would be the IceDogs' owners.
Burke said they haven't made a profit on the IceDogs yet. He said the team spends $1 million in wages, $100,000 to billet players with families and $350,000 for game-day expenses, like security. He said the team also spends $600,000 a year locally on businesses, such as car rentals, accountants, lawyers and retail items. The team's 20 full-time employees have bought 11 houses and 16 cars in the time they have been here.
Fans at the game Thursday night were in agreement with the team's owners.
Matt Rolston, a season ticket holder, said the team brings money, business and people into the city and region.
"I just want to see St. Catharines become a vibrant community again," said Rolston, holding one of the "Let's Build It" signs.
St. Catharines resident Dave Hanson said he played in the rink 44 years ago. "I love it here, but it's time," he said.
He said other smaller cities, like Owen Sound and Guelph, have better facilities. "St. Catharines doesn't have what other cities have. To come here and see this, it's a shame."
He said he'd miss the IceDogs if they left.
Burke said he believed there was enough support in the community and on council to get the arena built.
"If everyone really, really takes a good look at what's been said and the prospects a new spectator facility brings to our community, I honestly think it will pass," Burke said.
"There are obviously some people who are dead set against it, that it might not be the right time, and there are others who are very much for it because they realize it is the right time. So I think we'll be OK."