Meridian Centre – Niagara Ice Dogs (2022)

Where the Locals go in Niagara

Niagara Region, to the south of Toronto, offers a huge number of delights for visitors; the iconic Niagara Falls, sun-splashed wineries, the historic charm of Niagara-on-the-Lake, beaches, fine dining, and just about everything else needed for the perfect holiday. 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 been the shining gem at its heart since 2014. Today, this arena brings together people from across the Region to support their Boys in Red, but that wasn’t always the case.

In fact, the IceDogs have only been a part of Niagara since 2007. Before that, St. Catharines and nearby Niagara Falls each had their own clubs and the rivalry was bitter. In a region comprised of multiple small cities nearby each other, such a setup simply didn’t make sense. The modern OHL club for all Niagara is a solution supported by the entire region, as it always should have been. Despite the amateurish name and branding, the IceDogs put on a classy and professional show at their state-of-the-art home; a place for the locals of Niagara to get together.

This season, the club was sold to a new ownership group including none other than Wayne Gretzky, who’s name features on a popular local winery. Continuity on the ice has been the order of the day, though, and the experience remains the classy, professional , one it has always been.

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). The new arena signature is the ‘Ice Dog Dessert’ consisting of a gut-busting doughnut-fried churro-ice cream sundae for $16.50).Why not?

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 variety of local wines poured on tap for $14. That’s the way to drink at an IceDogs game!

Non-alc options include tea, coffee, and hot chocolate for $3 amongst others. The best advice here is to grab a bite up top in the surrounding neighbourhood and save your money for some wine inside the arena, or perhaps a fancy dessert with the kids.

Atmosphere 4

Meridian Centre remains one of the most modern arenas in the league, having opened in 2014 and showing no signs of age. It is clean, bright, spacious, and manages to avoid the cookie-cutter design of many new modern arenas. It isn’t simply a symmetrical bowl designed for optimal sightlines and no character.

The defining quirk of the arena is its topographical situation. This comes from the fact that the arena is located in a deep ravine, at the bottom of a cliff upon which downtown St. Catharines is perched. In fact, the roofline of the arena is mostly even with street level in the downtown. Rather than entering from the bottom, as is standard in just about every building, the majority of fans at Meridian Centre will actually enter from the roof and descend into the arena.

Two footbridges connect the top level of the rink to bustling St. Paul Street. Fans enter at the top of these, and descend two or three levels to the seating bowl, before descending again to their seats. Strange as it may seem, the design works well. 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 openness 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 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, but that can be excused amidst the usual full crowds.

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 mostly restrained, without too much obtrusive music or advertising.

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.

Also within walking distance is the now-closed Gatecliff Arena, which is worth checking out for stadium enthusiasts. The old barn recently saw its last action this past spring, when the junior club St. Catharines Falcons closed out their storied home with a Championship win. The arena also hosted the IceDogs for half a decade as Meridian Centre was being built. If you can get inside, look out for vintage wooden bench seats and the classic portrait of The Late Queen, once a fixture of every Canadian arena.

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 3

Niagara Region’s support for the unified hockey club has been strong since its début back in 2007. Before the pandemic, attendance was hovering at around 5,000, good for about 94% capacity. Numbers haven’t rebounded all the way yet, but the young season has brought attendances back above 4,000 so far.

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. No doubt, the availability of good beer and wine before and during the game helps.

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 up 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 coaches from Toronto and Hamilton arrive hourly or better and can usually be quite affordable. 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. Service has resumed since the pandemic and the border is fully open once again.

Within the arena, concourses are wide and there are ample washrooms as would be expected of a modern arena. Lineups for toilets are rarely too long, and entry into the arena is once again seamless now that Covid precautions have been lifted.

Return on Investment 4

IceDogs tickets represent the typical good value to be found in the OHL. End tickets start at $15 and the best seats at centre ice are only $28. Tickets can be purchased online or from various shopping centres in St. Catharines and nearby Welland. Concession prices seem steep, but so does everything these days. In fact, they represent average value for an OHL arena and the selection is decent.

Extras 3

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.

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

Final Thoughts

Meridian Centre continues to feel shiny and new, but without the sterility and design conformity of most modern arenas. The IceDogs have found regular success here, and the star power of their new ownership should only further that. Niagara has something for everyone, from wineries to world famous sights. But if you want to go where the locals go, visit St. Catharines and take in great hockey at the shiny new barn in the middle of it all.

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