IceDogs get brand new kennel

DAVE POLLARD, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:01 AM ET

TORONTO - The Niagara IceDogs won’t be put up for adoption after all.

Instead, the city of St. Catharines will keep their hockey pups.

After roughly four hours of barking back and forth, St. Kitt’s city council agreed to pony up for a new doghouse Monday night, voting emphatically in favour of a $50 million downtown arena that should keep Niagara’s OHL franchise around for the foreseeable future.

In exchange, the IceDogs will sign a 20-year lease to call the 4,500-5,300 seat facility home.

Frankly, it’s a win-win for both sides, even though the arena issue got a little thorny at times, as you might expect when taxpayer money is being used to build a facility to keep a private enterprise from bolting town.

“From the beginning I think we were always confident,” IceDogs owner Bill Burke said Tuesday. “We worked awfully hard and the speakers hit home runs last night. It was really them that carried it. Going in we were confident it could be a 7-5 vote and then to end up at 9-3 was just a resounding, ‘Yes, we want it.’

“You’re just really scared it’s not going to happen and what do you do then? It would be different if we were in a rink that ... maybe it wasn’t as current but was still usable. Our concessions are terrible and our washrooms are brutal and getting around (isn’t easy) ... for us to survive it’s just so exciting that there’s a new facility coming.”

While it’s great for a city that has become revitalized in recent years to upgrade its hockey facilities, from the IceDogs’ perspective, it’s a more significant victory.

It’s virtually impossible to stay afloat financially in the OHL without a modern facility. The team’s current barn, Jack Gatecliff Arena, can best be described as, ahem, cosy. Others might use four-letter words to describe it.

The reality is, The Jack, the league’s oldest arena now, has out-lived its usefulness in a big-business OHL. Fans want amenities, comfort, seats you can actually fit your butt into, when they visit an OHL rink. Nobody knows that more than Burke, who would have been forced to look elsewhere if council had voted against the new arena.

“We were just watching Oshawa play Kingston and we sat up in the restaurant with a table by the window,” Burke said. “It was just such a different way of doing it. People today want to have some luxury when they go out.”

They’ll get it with the new rink, which is expected to be built by January 2014. It’s going to cost the city some serious dough — $17 million from the civic project fund and up to $27 million borrowed — and taxpayers will take a hit, with an annual cost to homeowners of $19-24 per year for the next three decades.

But hockey fans in the area can take comfort in the fact they’ll have an OHL team to watch for at least 20 of those years. The IceDogs will be the primary tenant after agreeing to a 20-year lease.

“It was very important to us, to the city, to council, that we’re also committing to them,” Burke said. “They’re committing to us and we’re committing back. People poo-pooed it and said, ‘Well, they can get out of the lease.’ Life isn’t so simple that you can just break leases. If you do go bankrupt then you’ve lost not only your team but everything that’s tied to securing the team. So, if you think the Burkes can just get up and leave, they can’t.

“When you sign a lease, there’s commitments. There’s no doubt in my mind we’re going to have 20 great years here.”

One thing that won’t change is the team name. Despite a motion from council that asked staff to “investigate the possibility of renaming the OHL franchise to the St. Catharines IceDogs,” it won’t happen.

“This is where we live,” Burke said. “We’re the Niagara IceDogs from St. Catharines, Ont. I would think we’d be remaining the Niagara IceDogs.”

AROUND THE O

The Sudbury Wolves will try to resurrect the career of gritty 18-year-old forward Chad Thibodeau after acquiring him from the Soo Greyhounds for a pair of draft picks. Thibodeau was the odd-man out in the Soo, playing just eight games before being dealt ... Top NHL prospect Nail Yakupov of the Sarnia Sting could play at some point this weekend. The highly-skilled forward has been sidelined with a back injury, the result of a hit by Saginaw Spirit’s Garrett Ross in mid-November. Yakupov would be a huge boost to the Sting, who have gone 5-4-0-1 in the last 10 games ... Good move by the Guelph Storm giving coach Scott Walker a two-year contract extension. Walker, who barely has a full year of coaching experience under his belt, is clearly on the rise in the coaching ranks. He’s got the exceptionally young Storm two games over .500 and in the thick of the playoff race and will serve as an assistant coach on the Canadian junior team. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t sure he even wanted to step behind the bench ... Congrats to Belleville Bulls coach George Burnett, who got his 500th career win Friday against the Kingston Frontenacs. He’s just the sixth coach in OHL history to win 500 games. It was also the franchise’s 1,000th win.


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