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Old 09-20-2007, 05:45 PM
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Default Wow, we made the TO papers

Nice to see that we are making news outside of the Niagara region!

Garden City gears up for Hockey

Article from the Toronto Star: Dave Feschuk

It was more than 20 years ago that St. Catharines, the city of 130,000 inhabitants on the other side of Lake Ontario, lost its American Hockey League franchise, the Saints, to Newmarket. And when they did, Rudy Pilous, then the club's 72-year-old director of operations, expressed his frustration with an apathetic populace.

"The people in this town," Pilous said, "wouldn't pay five bucks to see Christ ride up on a jackass!"

Pilous, who died in 1994, was a formidable hockey man with caterpillar eyebrows and a curmudgeonly rasp, the last man to coach the Chicago Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup, a Hockey Hall of Famer and a sage. But as a son of his adopted hometown, allow me to defend my homefolk by pointing out that cheering for the Saints during their four-year residency, from 1982 to 1986, amounted to embracing the stiffs who couldn't crack a Maple Leafs squad that never went better than .425.

So there's optimism in this corner that hockey fans in the Niagara region are prepared to pony up for a long-awaited second coming. Thirty years after a long tradition of major-junior hockey franchises ended with a glimpse of the St. Catharines Fincups in 1977, there'll be an Ontario Hockey League team playing in the Garden City this season. Suddenly, a place with a proud hockey past – Memorial Cups in 1954 and 1960 as the Teepees and a roster of alumni that includes Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Marcel Dionne – is an unexpected part of the game's thriving present.

The Niagara IceDogs were purchased by Aurora-based businessman Bill Burke from Eugene Melnyk in the spring and, in a whirlwind summer, have moved from their former home in Mississauga to make way for another of Melnyk's holdings, the St. Michael's Majors. Since the Majors left behind their charming lean-to at St. Clair and Bathurst for the cavernous Hershey Centre, St. Catharines is now home to the OHL's quaintest setting, 69-year-old Jack Gatecliff Arena, named for the newspaper columnist who was the city's sporting voice of record for most of the previous century. If you like old barns and on-top-of-the-action sightlines, it's worth the drive. Capacity is about 3,000.

Burke's not a career hockey guy – he made his fortune selling a printing business – but his heart seems as though it's in the right place. He said he and his wife of 25 years, Denise, who is running the club's day-to-day business, fell in love with the OHL when their eldest of two sons, Billy, spent a season playing with the Barrie Colts. Denise said she previously considered junior hockey to be a heartless "meat market."

"I couldn't have been more wrong," she said. "It's just a wonderful atmosphere for these young men to be immersed in."

The Burkes aren't simply paying lip service to off-ice education. To their knowledge, theirs is the first OHL franchise to employ a full-time overseer of the players' housing and education. They've outfitted the team bus with wireless internet and satellite TV so that, Bill Burke proposes, the players might "watch (the news) rather than watch Happy Gilmore for the 10th time."

Can it work, considering an OHL team left nearby Niagara Falls for Erie, Pa., a decade ago? The IceDogs, with all due respect to Pilous, say they've sold more than 1,000 season tickets. They're expecting a sellout for tomorrow night's opener, with the Majors in town. And the Burkes are hoping that if they demonstrate demand for the product in their first couple of seasons, they'll have reason to engage local politicians in discussions on a new arena.

"We're not in there to get rich," Bill Burke said. "I'd like to make more money than we spend and I'd like to grow it and be part of it. ... We want to be the franchise that every kid wants to be drafted to. We're doing everything possible to make sure we have a long, healthy life down there."
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