Ten years ago Eugene Melnyk actually did something good. He bought the Mississauga IceDogs and let the world know he would kick them out of the Hershey Centre at the end of the 2006-07 season. He wanted a better rink for his OHL team, the St. Michaels Majors, and saw a better fit for them in the suburbs, than in the garage they played in at St. Michaels College.
The Mississauga IceDogs, founded in 1998 with Don Cherry as part of the ownership group, were looking to become homeless, forced to wander the Ontario landscape, begging for ice time and rummaging though trash bins for half drunk bottles of Gatorade. After an unsuccessful attempt to sell the team to an owner looking to move them to Niagara Falls, Melnyk found buyers in Bill and Denise Burke, who were able to work out a lease agreement with the City of St. Catharines, and occupy the then 75 year old Jack Gatecliff Arena.
This season the team celebrates it’s 10th anniversary in St. Catharines, and to celebrate I’m going to share my top 10 IceDogs memories from the past decade.
My first game
Let’s start at the very beginning. October 23rd, 2008. I’ve just moved back to St. Catharines. The IceDogs are starting their second year in town and the Erie Otters are here. My fathers union bought a group package that included ice time before the game, so we hand the kid off to his grandparents and my lady and I hit the ice.
At this point it had been almost 15 years since I had skated at The Jack, and no, I didn’t remember any of the figure skating lessons I learned way back then. After skating there’s pizza to eat so we head to the change rooms to take off our skates.
Here’s my favourite part: The Jack was so small that the visiting teams dressing rooms shared an open area with the change rooms for the other ice pad. The warm up equipment was set up literally next to our pizza boxes.
The poor Otters had to ride the bikes and stretch and try to play soccer with a bunch of people getting ready to boo them for the next hour and a half, kids teams getting ready to use the second ice pad, and also be ogled by certain sisters, as they warmed up in their under armour.
Man, I love that arena.
This one is just for me, but the team has been welcoming whenever I wanted to show up and sit in that press box, which I appreciate. Putting up with some dummy and his hobby, letting him talk to the players before/after games and being able to wander around and chat with anyone I need is greatly appreciated.
The team is always doing community events, and generally make themselves available to anyone who needs the time or for events around town. Every junior team does things like this, but hey, it’s my list.
The biggest memory for this is when the IceDogs visited my kids school. He met Andrew Shaw, and when we were watching the Blackhawks in the cup final over the Bruins he remembered Shaw coming to his school. As he watched the players skate the cup around he saw Shaw, blood trickling down his face, raise it over his head and said "I want to do that".
I’ve been a resident of St. Catharines for 28 years, and aside from the hatred of Brock students who live off campus, I’ve never seen anything bring the city together like the IceDogs. Playoff runs see signs and flags up everywhere. Shirts, hats, jerseys are all over town, and having strangers yell across the street about the game that day or previous night is always good to hear.
With the teams arrival, especially the more recent move to the Meridian Centre, downtown hasn’t been forgotten as a place for those damn Brock students to get smashed on weekends and harass poor pizza guys. More actual restaurants are popping up, and staying open. Crowds pour out into St. Paul St. after and before games.
It’s a damn community gathering place once again.
We have a marching band. In the playoffs, season openers, and other major games we have a marching band in the standing section over the IceDogs net.
Who else has a marching band in the OHL?
The band was even better in The Jack, since they were seated next to the section dedicated to the opposing teams busload of fans.
"Welcome to The Jack! Don’t mind the drums right behind you."
Home ice advantage
This one is lost and we won’t see it again, but man, as I’ve repeated many times, I love the Jack Gatecliff Arena.
The ice surface was smaller than usual. It was 170 feet long, instead of 180 feet and the missing ten feet was almost all taken out of the neutral zone. You could skate across it in five or so strides, and it was a big help against newer players who didn’t see it coming.
The ceiling was very low and you could see the wooden slats that made up the roof.
The scoreboard was numbers only.
It smelled of 80 years of hockey. A deep smell of sweat, mold, mildew, that permeated everything in the confines of the brick walls, it was such a sweet smell.
There was a portrait of the queen hanging above one end. The wrinkle free, brown hair, barely away from being a princess portrait of Queen Elizabeth was my locator when I was a kid. "Could I see the queen from my seat? What side was she on?" were the questions I asked when getting a drink or popcorn at St. Catharines Falcons games as a kid. Yes, I used to get lost in The Jack as a kid.
The seats were wooden. They were meant to hold two people. Two people of 1930’s average size that is. Some had slats, some had a solid piece of wood. Some broke apart in your hand, as one did when I was prepping the arena for the 2011/12 season opener.
Speaking of the 1930’s, it was built to 1930’s fire codes. Only three aisles on each side to get to/from your seats. The concourse was 1.5 people wide. Anyone who attended a sold out hockey game there thanked the deity of their choice post game for keeping disasters away.
The doors at the west end of the arena. Oh those doors. Kept closed during game play they kept the noise of 3,000 people contained, echoing off every flat surface, making it sound like a 10,000 seat barn.
Banners for Memorial Cups won in the 50’s. Enough banners from the JrB Falcons that the filled an entire end of the arena. This was an arena for winning in.
For opposing teams? They had to use two dressing rooms. They had to warm up among the childrens hockey teams. They had to stretch in the parking lot as IceDogs fans swarmed around them to get into the game.
No privacy for the visitors. Nowhere safe to get ready. As it should be.
Going in the opposite direction, the IceDogs now play in the two year old Meridian Centre. A 5,000 seat modern OHL rink with a fancy HD video scoreboard, lights that turn off, TV friendly staging, snack stands where you can see the game while in line, single person plastic seats that don’t fall apart in your hands.
Okay, so it’s missing some charm of The Jack, but it’s nice to be in a rink where you can be comfortable no matter where you sit.
The opening of the Meridian Centre was a great game. After a six game road trip to start the season, with the IceDogs going 0-6, they arrived to officially open the MC for hockey.
After an opening ceremony, Danish sensation Mikkeal Aagaard took a pass from Graham Knott and scored the first goal in MC history only 1:21 into the first period. The IceDogs dominated the game from start to finish, winning 7-4 in front of, up to that point, largest crowd in IceDogs history.
The MC has brought us more fans for playoff games, it hosted the 2016 IIHF U18 Women’s WorldChampionships, where the attendance record was doubled from 16,000 to over 34,000 total attendees. The Tragically Hip, City & Colour have played there and NXT wrestling’s second ever Canadian show will be there in the fall.
Connor Crisp the goalie
On March 4th, 2012 the Erie Otters forgot to bring a backup goalie to their game vs the Niagara IceDogs. One goalie was injured and they couldn’t call up another goalie in their system because that would make him ineligible for the NCAA, always a back up to keep if you’re a #3 goalie for an OHL team.
What are the odds they’d need a back up goalie?
Well two minutes into the game goalie Ramis Sadikov was collided with and knocked out of the game. After mulling the options, like rescheduling the game, the Otters sent forward Connor Crisp into the game. From Buzzing the Net:
"On Saturday they told me I was coming on the road and that I would be the backup goalie," Crisp, who just resumed full-contact practices with the Ontario Hockey League team and was itching to get in a game, said from the Otters' team bus. "Me and the guys were laughing about it on the bus coming up. Then just after warmups, Mikey [Hildenbrand], our equipment manager, made up a jersey for me.
"The next thing I know I'm skating out to centre. It was funny at first and then it just escalated from there."
Crisp was just cleared to play after sitting out five months with a shoulder injury.
In the summer of 2011, the IceDogs were coming off a five-game loss to the Mississauga Majors in the Eastern Conference Finals. We had a taste of deep playoff runs. We wanted more.
I wanted more IceDogs in my life, so saving the season ticket money, I signed up to work on the game day crew. Paste a few board ads, drag some signage and chairs around pre and post game, and then stand rinkside and watch while eating free food, while wearing a free jacket. It was a nice jacket too, which got ruined by some construction fencing at Union Station. (If you’re reading this Nick, I’m still an XL). Showing scouts and ex-NHLers around the rink, gathering hoards of school kids to sing the anthems, getting mocked by Tie Domi for lugging a la-z-boy through the bowels of The Jack.
Yes, that was the life. The team was pretty good as well.
Four NHL first round picks; Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Strome, Mark Visentin, Jamie Oleksiak, plus other NHL current or future picks in Freddie Hamilton, Andrew Friesen, David Pacan, Carter Verhaeghe, and 2016 Stanley Cup winner Tom Kuhnhackl.
Damn they were good. 47-18-0-3 record. 1st in the Central. 1st in the East. 2nd overall.
291 goals for. 169 goals against. Third fewest penalty minutes in the league. #1 power play in the league. #1 penalty kill. Seemingly unbeatable.
Storming through the playoffs. Beat Oshawa in six games. Swept Brampton. Beat Ottawa in five.
Then...the goddamn London fucking Knights.
Down in five games. A disappointing end to a fantastic playoff run.
We should have seen it coming in 2016.
Niagara vs Lucas Lessio & the Oshawa Generals
Oh Lucas. This is really more of a playoff story than anything else.
Lucas Lessio was drafted by the Niagara IceDogs in the 2009 OHL draft at seventh overall.
In July 2010 he was signed by the Oshawa Generals. He was traded to the Gens after Lessio only spent 48 hours at IceDogs camp, to keep his NCAA options open.
There’s the official story, Lessio wanted to keep his college options, Loose Pucks reported was was being wooed by Michigan, and the IceDogs wanted more compensation in case he never played in the OHL.
The fan theory is that, like a few other players, he didn’t consider Niagara a place to play and get noticed leading up to his draft year, and Oshawa was a more prominent place to play.
What’s true? Probably the former but no one lets logic get in the way of a good sports rivalry.
Lucas Lessio became public enemy number one in the eyes of IceDogs fans and, my God, we really found a way under his skin in the playoffs.
Whenever Oshawa came to town chats of "Leeesssioooo" followed him. Boos when he touched the puck. But something in those final minutes of playoff games...after hours of chants and boos over a series...he snapped.
First in 2012. It’s round one and game six of the playoffs. Niagara is beating Oshawa, getting ready to eliminate them yet again. "Leeeesssiooooo" chants. As the buzzer sounds and the IceDogs celebrate we get one last gift of the season. Lessio exits the game with a double middle finger salute for the fans.
2013, well, let me post my summary from my old blog:
4) Lucas Lessio - A subject for a post all in it's own, but the crowd is no fan of Lucas'. An IceDogs draft pick who said he was going NCAA until his rights were traded to Oshawa, then he changed his mind. Which is his right, it's a popular tactic to going where you want (see Max Domi & Eric Lindros), but it's also the crowds right to boo the one that spurned us. I'm no fan of the homophobic insults used (you suck dick!) or the sexist ones (hey, where's your purse?), or outside the confines of the rink in general, but booing when he has the puck, and cheering his penalties and hits, well that's hockey. Playing here tends to make him lose his cool and did he ever. You could see the drive in his eyes to score a goal and show us all up. Which he did. Except it didn't count. As soon as the puck hit the net the refs were waving it off. He either didn't notice or care, because he swiped the ice and fist bumped his bench anyway. The third period is where this story picks up. A roughing, then a slashing, then a goal tender interference in the third period, which set him off on a tantrum that including slamming his stick, holding open the penalty box doors to scream at the ref, then a game misconduct. 2 years ago when the Generals were eliminated by Niagara he got a game misconduct and flipped off the rink on his way out. Can't wait for game 4 on Thursday.
...the IceDogs lost that game and the series.
Is it a bit assholeish for my best IceDogs memories to include the razzing of a teenage opponent? Probably. It was still awesome though.
Coming into the tenth season for the IceDogs it’s going to be a fun year. We have a new coach, a...different management team, a new direction.
Oh, and please wear the red jerseys full time.
Niagara IceDogs, great OHL franchise, or the greatest?