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Football led to hockey for new owner of OHL's Niagara IceDogs

NHL.com @NHL

(CP) - It's a winding road to follow how passing up an opportunity in the Canadian Football League led Bill Burke to buy an Ontario Hockey League team and install it in St. Catharines, Ont.

When Burke was a running back at Wilfrid Laurier University in the late 1970s, he decided to finish his economics degree and get started on his career instead of attending training camps of the Calgary Stampeders or the Toronto Argonauts.

The former drafted him and the latter acquired his rights from the Stampeders.

Fast forward to 2005 when his son Billy, playing both hockey and football at Queen's University at the time, was recruited by the OHL's Barrie Colts.

Billy told his father he didn't want to look back and wonder what it would have been like to play major junior hockey and Burke felt the same way about the CFL, even though he said there was little chance he would have had a football career.

"In hindsight, I wish I had gone out, just to experience it for no other reason than I think it would be kind of cool, when you're 40 years old, at least you'd experienced it, which ties into how I fell in love with the OHL," Burke said.

Watching his son play for Barrie during the 2005-06 season, Burke decided the OHL was something he wanted to get involved in.

"I loved the excitement of the league and the energy of the players and how the communities outside the Greater Toronto Area get excited by it and that's why I fell in love with it," he said.

Burke bought the franchise formerly known as the Mississauga IceDogs from Eugene Melnyk and moved it to St. Catharines during the off-season.

So the 2007-08 OHL season opens Wednesday with St. Catharines back in the league after an absence of more than 30 years. The Black Hawks left the city in 1976 to move to Niagara Falls.

The Saginaw Spirit host the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the lone game to start the season Wednesday. There are 20 teams in the league and each plays 68 games during the regular season.

The 49-year-old Burke is president of two divisions of the printing company Grafikom LP. He's based in Toronto, but his connection to St. Catharines is that he attended private school there as did another son, Joey.

Burke's purchase of the team and relocation to St. Catharines allowed Melnyk to transfer his other OHL team, the St. Michael's Majors, from downtown Toronto into the IceDogs' former home, the Hershey Centre in Mississauga.

The Niagara IceDogs, whose record was 43-21-0-4 last season, remain in the Central Division with the Majors, Colts, Brampton Battalion and Sudbury Wolves.

Since the OHL board of governors approved the sale to Burke in early June, it's been hurry-up offence for the new owner and his wife Denise, who is the president of the team, to get the IceDogs ready for their home opener Friday against the Majors.

"It was a three-minute offence because it was three months and really, any other team would be a year," Burke said. "It's unbelievable what we've accomplished.

"We're really pulling off a miracle."

The city pumped $250,000 into renovations at the 2,800-seat Gatorade Garden City Arena, built in 1938, to install a new roof, siding, rinkboards and penalty box, as well as refurbish the dressing and physiotherapy rooms and coaches' offices.

The IceDogs forked out $100,000 to upgrade the public address system and to install four large video screens in the arena.

Television screens have also been installed near concession stands so spectators "can watch the Buffalo Bills at intermission," Burke said.

Burke has signed a five-year lease with the city and is confident a new arena will be built there before the contract expires.

"We're not going anywhere," he said. "Before the five years, we'll have a new rink."

The team has sold over 1,000 season tickets. The star of the team is forward Stefan Legein, a Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick who played for the Canadian junior team in the Super Series against Russia.

Mario Cicchillo is the head coach of the team and Dave Brown is the GM.

Todd Watson will make his OHL head coaching debut behind the Saginaw Spirit's bench and former NHL player Mark Reeds is the new coach of the Owen Sound Attack.

The Kitchener Rangers will host the 2008 Memorial Cup and thus have a berth in the CHL's championship tournament as the host club.

Notes - Former NHL player Jim Sandlak (Vancouver) is an assistant coach of the Sarnia Sting . . . The OHL leg of the six-game ADT Canada-Russia Series will be held in Kitchener on Nov. 22 and Sudbury on Nov. 26 . . . Rogers Television will televise 306 OHL games this season . . . Sault Ste. Marie hosts the OHL All-Star Classic on Feb. 5.

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