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The Honeymoon is over at "The Jack"

When Bill Burke made the decision to purchase the Mississauga Ice Dogs and relocate the team to Niagara many naysayers felt Burke was making a huge mistake. The dilapidated conditions of the Jack Gatecliff Arena (aka “The Jack”) were sub par and many doubted Burke could develop an economically feasible business plan. Buoyed by St. Catharines Mayor Brian McMullan’s prediction of there only being 5-7 years of life left in the old barn, Burke was confident if he held in, a new facility would be available.

Now in the Ice Dog’s fifth season in Niagara there are still no plans for a replacement arena. The talk is getting louder, in fact some St. Catharines residents are shouting, why should the taxpayers build an Ice Dog Palace? The city is certainly divided on whether this new facility should be given the go ahead. At the last city council meeting a motion was put forward to hold a referendum to determine if the citizens of St. Catharines want to build a new spectator facility.

The fate of the Ice Dogs in Niagara may very well be in the hands of politicians.

Local MPP and season ticket holder Jim Bradley acknowledges the arena is due for replacement. “This has to be the oldest arena in the circuit. It is cozy, the fans are very enthusiastic, (it’s) very compact but requires hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to maintain because of its age…. A decision (for a new arena) is strictly up to city council, and I am not supposed to coach them but as a hockey fan it is always nice to see a top notch facility in any community….As a provincial member of parliament….if the city made the decision to proceed with the arena and were looking for funding sources outside of the city, they would come to the province of Ontario and the government of Canada. At that time it would my responsibility to advocate on their behalf.”

Ice Dog owner Bill Burke is tired of the moniker “Ice Dog Palace” to describe the new spectator facility. He is adamant the entire community would benefit from such a facility not just hockey fans. With the Ice Dogs as “anchor tenants” it could be a success for the whole city. Burke says a downtown facility would be more than two or three nights of hockey in the winter but rather year-round opportunities for other entertainment such as concerts. Partnering up with downtown restaurants and bars could make a terrific night out for anyone.

Burke sums up the conditions of the current arena in one word -brutal.

Burkes says he believes they “have worked hard to put a great team on the ice, every year has been competitive, it’s a great atmosphere but the amenities and the age of the rink, the concessions, the washrooms – its brutal.” Owning an OHL team is a business and Burke is aware peoples’ livelihood depends on the success of the team. The Ice Dogs have 15 full time employees, 52 on game day and these employees are counting on the team to be successful so they have their source of revenue. Burke says “we’re sold out every night and can’t break even. To make a go of it, the magic number is 3500 but up to 4500 is a proper business model. I don’t want to make any money but I don’t want to haemorrhage every year.”

Burke assures “we’re not holding a gun to anyone’s head, we love it in Niagara, we love the fans, the players love living here, they love playing here but we need a proper facility. The league was kind to us five years ago, but the honeymoon is over.”

Saturday night’s game against the Plymouth Whalers was another sold out game for the Ice Dogs. Following a 4-1 win over Ottawa Thursday night, it was a second consecutive much needed win for the struggling Dogs. Following back to back losses and a long bus home last week-end, Coach Williamson had the boys back on the ice early morning Sunday for an extra no-pucks allowed practice. Williams said “they needed a message” they are a 20 member team. Williamson says the team has a lot of character. They went on the ice and worked hard, no moaning and groaning, a matter of refocusing. And refocus they did. Williamson was pleased with their effort this week and is giving the boys a deserved day off this Sunday.

Williamson will be busy however figuring out what to do with his goaltending team. While Mark Visentin appears to be back healthy and in fine form (his second shutout of the year on Saturday night) the Dogs currently have three goal tenders. It appears Czech import Jaroslav Pavelka is the odd man out. Williamson says he will be speaking with Pavelka’s agent this week.

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