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  • Robbie Raskin

Meridian Centre - Niagara Ice Dogs

Photos by Robbie Raskin, Stadium Journey

Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 4.14

Meridian Centre 1 IceDogs Way St. Catharines, ON N7T 7W5

Year Opened: 2014

Capacity: 5,300

Niagara Through Thick and Thin

Near Toronto, the world-famous Niagara Region offers a huge number of delights for visitors beyond the eponymous waterfall. It hosts a world-renowned wine country, with related fine dining, spas, and natural attractions. Nearby, the charming British village of Niagara-on-the-Lake, one time capital of Upper Canada, hosts the annual Shaw Festival of theatre amidst its historic homes converted into B&Bs. The Niagara Escarpment offers excellent hiking, and two Great Lakes feature sandy beaches.But for locals, the crowds of Niagara Falls and high prices in Wine Country are not what bring together the nearly half-million strong region, especially in the depths of winter. In the midst of all these tourist draws lies the locals’ favourite activity – the Niagara IceDogs.

The OHL’s IceDogs play out of Meridian Centre in the city of St. Catharines, located at the urban heart of Niagara Region. Known as the ‘Garden City’ due to its mild climate and abundant gardens, St. Catharines is tucked in between Lake Ontario and the towering Niagara Escarpment. The city of 150 000 is the largest in the Niagara Region, and Meridian Centre has anchored its town centre since 2014. 

Although the arena is lovely, the past couple years on and off the ice have been difficult for the hockey club. In 2022, a human resources scandal rocked the club and forced the owners, the Burke family, to sell it. A new consortium, including the legendary Wayne Gretzky, purchased the club and restored hope for stability. But it wasn’t to be.

Another scandal hit the club shortly into the new ownership’s tenure involving multiple players, bringing suspensions, fines, and forfeited draft picks. All the chaos has caught up with the club, who have struggled mightily on the ice. But the Boys in Red still have the support of Niagara, and it looks like that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In the meantime, Meridian Centre is an excellent place to catch an IceDogs game, in a touristic paradise.

Food & Beverage 3

Niagara’s stature as a wine region of global repute has been growing momentously for about two decades so far. With that comes a culture of gastronomy that flows through St. Catharines’ hip downtown core. The food inside the arena is fairly standard for a modern OHL rink, with a couple signature items but largely ordinary fare.

Just about every concession offers the usual poutine ($10.75) and pizza ($7.50), with the standout savoury item being a Chicken Parm sandwich (16.50 for a combo). You certainly won’t go hungry, but Meridian Centre isn’t exactly a culinary destination either - enjoy the restaurants of nearby St. Paul and James Streets if you’re including a meal as part of your evening.

Being in wine country, though, it’s the drinks selection that sets Meridian Centre apart, as well it should. Beyond the usual ‘cheap’ imports, craft beer cans come from Oast House and Bench Brewery, with cider from Niagara Cider Co. (all $13). But where the fun really begins is Niagara wine on draught, with a small variety of local wines from Vineland Estate on tap for $14. That’s the way to drink in wine country!

Atmosphere 4

Meridian Centre is best described as clean, bright, spacious, and new-feeling, even though it’s now a decade old. It also manages to avoid the cookie-cutter bowl shape with many modern rinks; an asymmetrical layout keeps things interesting. 

The defining quirk of the arena is its topographical situation. The arena is located in a deep ravine, at the bottom of the high land upon which downtown St. Catharines is perched. In fact, the roofline of the arena is mostly even with street level of the surrounding neighbourhood, rather than rising above it. Fans don’t enter at ground level and climb up to their seats, as usual. Here you actually enter from the roof and descend into the arena.

Two footbridges connect the top level of the rink to bustling St. Paul Street, though usually only one is open for hockey. Fans descend two or three levels to the seating bowl. Strange as it may seem, the design works efficiently. Emerging from the stairwell, fans enter a concourse that wraps all the way around the arena and is wide open to the ice, meaning no one has to miss any action when leaving their seats. At the west end of the rink, the open feel is particularly notable, with a double-height open terrace. Along here there are concessions, exhibitor booths, and the interesting St. Catharines Sports Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame is small but features interesting rotating displays, and is open to the ice, rather than tucked away into a separate room.

The seats themselves are steeply pitched and comfortable, affording good views. Unfortunately they are painted in the blue and orange colours of title sponsor Meridian Credit Union, rather than the IceDogs red and black. It isn’t too distracting, as the seats are usually quite full anyway.

Upstairs at the club level, a tier of suites lines each side of the rink with a spacious hospitality area at the east end. At this end, banners hang commemorating the current club’s achievements as well as the historic Blackhawks and Teepees clubs who used to play in town. In-game presentation is focused, without too much obtrusive music or advertising. The IceDogs uniquely (for Canada) employ cheerleaders, but they are relegated to a corner of the seating bowl and dance in place to any music piped in.

Neighbourhood 5

Few places offer as many tourist attractions in such close proximity as does Niagara Region. Niagara Falls is twenty minutes away from Meridian Centre, with its Vegas-level glitz as well as the famous waterfall. Minutes downriver is the genteel Niagara-on-the-Lake, a world away from the light and sound of the Falls, with postcard-perfect villages set amidst vines. Here, the crowds eschew casinos and theme parks for old pubs, fine dining, historic forts, and of course wineries.

Just outside the doors of Meridian Centre, downtown St. Catharines has emerged as a trendy, somewhat bohemian locale centred on St. Paul Street and James Street. Fans looking for dining or drinks on either side of the match will do well to take a stroll up St. Paul Street or James Street, a couple blocks in either direction from where the footbridges deposit you.

Not far away, in warm weather, the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta is reputed to be one of the top two rowing venues on the planet. The serene course is tucked away in the tony Port Dalhousie neighbourhood and has excellent walking trails alongside. Another spot for the enthusiast is the new Canada Games Park up the hill in Thorold, where Brock University’s hockey teams play. The brand new arena was built as a showpiece of the Niagara 2022 Canada Summer Games and is truly magnificent for Canadian university sport.

Fans 4

The IceDogs have struggled mightily in recent years, and attendance has definitely fallen from pre-pandemic averages of near-sellout crowds. Still, a steady core of nearly 4000 have stuck it out at Meridian Centre, which puts them in the top half of the league. That loyalty is something to be proud of, given the shambolic state of the club in recent years.

As is common with most hockey in English Canada, the real unfiltered boisterous fans remain in the junior leagues, with the spotless new arenas being a more family-friendly environment. Still, IceDogs fans are fairly loud and the generic ‘Go Dogs Go’ chants and Viking claps are common. When the arena is full for a big match, though, the crowd can be one of the better ones in the OHL. When the on-ice product improves, expect a rebound to sellout crowds quickly enough.

Access 5

It couldn’t be easier to get to Meridian Centre from around Niagara, as long as you can handle a short walk as part of the journey. The ravine-bottom entrance of the arena is actually right alongside Highway 406, which connects St. Catharines with southern Niagara cities of Welland and Port Colborne. 

That said, parking at the bottom level is extremely limited. Drivers should go up to street level in the downtown and park there. There are two large city parkades on either end of the neighbourhood, within five minutes’ walk, and lots of private parking that will cost $15-$20 for the evening.

Public transport is a great way to get to the hockey, given the St. Catharines bus terminal is steps from the rink.  All local bus routes pass through the terminal as do a number of regional routes from cities like Niagara Falls. Express bus service with GO Transit, Flixbus, or Megabus comes from Toronto, Hamilton, and Niagara Falls better than every hour. Similarly, GO Trains from Toronto pass through the nearby station (15 minute walk) en route to Niagara Falls. For the adventurous American fan, there are even trains from New York City that call in St. Catharines en route to Toronto.

Within the arena, concourses are wide and there are ample washrooms as would be expected of a modern arena. Lineups for toilets are rarely an issue, even during intermissions.

Return on Investment 4

Single match tickets range from $15-$30 and represent the typically strong value proposition of junior hockey. Season memberships begin at roughly $450 and rise to about $1300 for the ‘Club’ seats, with their private mezzanine above one end of the ice. Concession prices are average for the OHL, and there are regularly sales on for merchandise at the team shop.

Extras 4

One aspect that stands out at Meridian Centre are the classy ushers, outfitted in their bespoke red suits. These folks do a great job assisting fans and are present at every section of the seating bowl.

Another point for the history on display from previous St. Catharines hockey clubs including the Teepees and Blackhawks, as well as local NHL legend Stan Mikita. Despite the newness of the IceDogs in their current iteration, they’ve done a good job absorbing the history of previous teams in the city.

An extra point is deserved for the richness of the surrounding area in terms of attractions for any visitor. StadiumJourney is about 'away days' and exploring new areas anchored by sport. There is so much more for any type of traveller, all within twenty minutes of Meridian Centre; few stadia on earth can compare in this regard.

Finally, a point for the enjoyable Sports Hall of Fame, worth an intermission visit.

Final Thoughts

The IceDogs will get better some day, eventually it will be inevitable. Until then, strong support and a great arena make a trip here worthwhile. Meridian Centre still feels shiny and new after a decade, yet it also avoids feeling like a cookie-cutter modern venue. Coupled with a charming surrounding neighbourhood and world-class tourism draws beyond it, hockey fans should definitely consider OHL hockey in St. Catharines as part of a trip to Niagara. 

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