On July 12, 2006, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk bought the Mississauga Ice Dogs. Ordinarily, this is not an unusual situation. Sports franchises are bought and sold all the time. What made this situation unique was that Melnyk already owned the OHL's Toronto St. Michael's Majors. The majority of leagues do not allow for a team to be owned by another franchise owner, and the OHL is no different. Melnyk purchased the Ice Dogs solely for the access to the Hershey Centre's lease so that he could move his Majors to Mississauga. Melnyk was faced with the task of finding a buyer in a new market for the Ice Dogs. There was reported interest from the Ontario communities of North Bay and Cornwall. There were rumours about a buyer in the New York suburbs Buffalo or Rochester.
In a bit of a surprise move, the Ice Dogs were sold to Bill Burke and would move to St. Catharines to become the Niagara IceDogs. What was surprising about this was that OHL Commisioner David Branch had been clear about what type of arena a new city would have to have — and the Jack Gatecliff Arena wasn't it. With the threat of the IceDogs making yet another move, St. Catharines City Council approved funding for a new arena for the IceDogs which should be ready for the 2014 season. Not a moment too soon, the IceDogs faithful will be able to scream "Hit the Road Jack!" and move into their new digs.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The concessions in the Jack are very limited. You will find what you would expect in any snack bar type of concession stand including soda (Pepsi products), water, popcorn, Gatorade, candy, coffee, popcorn, and slushies. There is a concession stand in the main lobby before the arena, which is quite small, another similar stand at the top of the stairs upon entering the arena, and a couple of other stands surrounding the seating bowl. You can find beer (Molson Canadian and Coors Light), hot dogs, and nachos at the small, specialty stands. You will not be overwhelmed by the concessions, as they are very basic, but the price is decent. Your best bet would be to eat early, and stick with a beer or soda at the game.
There is great debate about the atmosphere at the Jack. Admittedly, the building is historic. Having opened its doors back in 1938, there are remnants of history throughout the building. Much like Toronto's Varsity Arena, you will find the double wooden seats from the old days, in the seating bowl. The one end of the area features the classic portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, which was once commonplace in all Canadian arenas. The rafters are littered with banners from St. Catharines' Junior B franchise, the Falcons. You can also find IceDogs banners for the 2012 Central Divison and Eastern Conference Championships.
However, the history that is found at the Jack is overshadowed by the sheer discomfort that the fans feel. The seating bowl is very cramped, and there is a distinct lack of legroom at your seat. The breezeways above the seating bowl are surrounded with reserved standing room spots, which really impedes travel. An arena like this can be okay, but the capacity crowds which regularly show up in Niagara give the building a new definition of cramped.
The IceDogs feature a set of cheerleaders, which is definitely unique in OHL hockey. Their mascot, Bones, entertains the crowds and kids. The sound system is excellent, but a lack of space has forced the IceDogs to go with four projection screens in lieu of what would be considered a standard video board. Also, the keyboard player is in the "standing room" with the crowd, which is neat feature, but I would think it, too, is out of necessity.
The Gatorade Garden City Complex is located in a residential area, and there are very few options within walking distance. There are a couple of options, but nothing really to get excited about. Find a place to eat further away from the arena. Try something north of the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) on Lake Street. Some good options are Frego's Grillhouse or Joe Feta's Greek Village, which was featured on the Food Network show "You Gotta Eat Here." Joe Feta's has some excellent Greek food.
IceDogs fans are deserving of a new arena. They are loud and proud. IceDogs fans tend to ride the referees a bit more than the average fan, but it is not overbearing. IceDogs games are typically sold out. Every goal is met with a huge reaction and a whole lot of noise. Fans are knowledgeable and able to converse on those IceDogs who have made it to the big time, or who will be there soon. It will be interesting to see if a greater capacity arena will remain filled when the IceDogs move.
The Gatorade Garden City Complex is located just north of Highway 406 and a few blocks south of the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW). Getting to the Jack is not difficult. However, once you are around the arena, your troubles begin. Parking is at a premium. Make sure you get there early to get a spot. There are a couple of street lots and street parking, but it is not really sufficient. Once inside, the Jack really falls short. Travelling around the arena is very difficult as there is just not enough space. The washroom facilities are not nearly adequate, either. One would presume that a new arena would bring solutions to these issues.
OHL hockey continues to be a great investment for your sporting dollar. Concessions, although not terrific, will not break your bank account. Tickets are just over $20, and parking can be found for free. Combine that with a great experience, and some of the best hockey on the planet and you can't go wrong.
An extra mark goes to the IceDogs on an unbelievable comeback, scoring 4 goals in the final five minutes of the game, and winning the game in a shootout. One of the most exciting games I've ever seen.
An extra mark for the City of St. Catharines for stepping up and funding the building of a new arena for the IceDogs.
An extra mark for the history found at the Jack.
It's a good idea to get to the Jack Gatecliff Arena before the place is mothballed. The combination of history in the architecture and the excitement of a new arena in the future are a recipe for a couple of visits to see the IceDogs. It won't be long until the IceDogs move into their new digs and say "Hit The Road, Jack!" to the old place.
The Niagara IceDogs have had an interesting history since there inception in 1998. After several owners and beginning their first nine years in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, the team landed in St. Catharines, Ontario to start the 2007 season.
The team plays at the Gatorade Garden City Complex, formerly the Jack Gatecliff Arena Complex. Nestled in a residential area of this middle-class community, the arena is one of the most unique and quaint that I have ever visited. Witnessing an IceDogs game is one of the most unique you will ever enjoy even though you will see many unimpressive things along the way.
If you've ever wondered what junior hockey must have felt like in the 60s - or earlier - catch a game at the Jack before its replaced in a couple of years. Never intended as anything but a short term stopgap for this team, it will be replaced by a modern facility by 2014.
In the meantime, get ready for two experiences - one very good and one very bad. The bad is away from the seat. There is no concourse, only a concession area at each end. The only access to side seats or between the areas is to walk behind the standing room at the top of the seating, which is at best, a one-way walkway. It's a nightmare.
The good is the in-seat experience. You're close to the ice, it only seats 2,800 plus standing, and the wooden roof amplifies crowd noise. Southern Ontario crowds tend to be reserved, but Niagara's a bit different. The crowd is more likely to cheer or heckle, and you might even catch some coordinated Go Dogs Go yells. Seats are two person seats, folding wooden seats, the 1937 originals. Surprisingly, there's more leg room and hip room than in some more modern arenas, so while moving around is all but impossible, seats aren't too bad.
Concessions are very basic - popcorn, nachos, hot dogs. In fact, they're kind of limited. But they are cheap - a bottle of pop runs about $2.50, so these are gas station prices, not arena prices.
Some express dismay at the immediate neighborhood, but I've never found it bad at all. In fact, if you head west to the western part of downtown - where the new arena will be - there's some very good restaurants, bars and pubs.
Parking isn't easy. There are a few free lots and street parking, but you'll walk a bit. But even the lots across the street are only $5, so it definitely could be worse.
On extras, I give two points for the IceDogs being the first OHL team to bring back a live organist. It makes a huge positive impact on atmosphere. Another point for owners Bill and Denise Burke, who sit in the crowd (Bill always in an IceDogs jersey) and often lead yells. Another point for the fans' patience through the new arena process. One point deducted for incredibly difficult movement around the arena.
In summary, catch a game here before it's gone, but be thankful a new arena is on the way!
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