When the capacity crowd at Mercy Health Arena (formerly L.C. Walker Arena) celebrates a Muskegon Lumberjacks goal by yelling “You got Jacked,” it’s a fun taunt at the opposing goalie.
But it’s equally appropriate as a measure of excitement felt by the thousands of fans providing a home-ice advantage for Michigan’s only United States Hockey League team.
With a $2.7 million renovation and elite hockey talent – the Lumberjacks have had 18 NHL draft picks and 51 players earn college scholarships in just the last 5 years – the hockey and the social experience has changed from preconceived perceptions, said Mike McCall, the Lumberjacks president.
“Our number one goal is to make sure we created something for everyone,” McCall said. “When you come into this building, there’s a wow factor, there’s a vibe and there’s a sense of fun. We’re grateful to have the opportunity to present that night in and night out.
“(The renovation) is helping to revive the downtown. The Muskegon area is growing. The vibe in the whole community is improving. There’s a new sense of pride and we want to be one of those helping lead that.”
The project was unveiled in late 2018, and this will be the first full season for fans to experience the team’s 30 home dates that stretch into April. The upgrades include a new and improved concourse area, suite boxes, club and lodge seating, and the creation of a party platform that includes a beer garden, bar and open-air and interactive kids’ zone.
The new concourse design keeps fans inside the arena rather than leaving the seating area and into a closed off hallway. The work brings concessions to the inside and is transformative.
“The great thing about this openness that we created in the arena is that it’s really created a social environment. People can walk around, and they can see the game, they can see their friends, they can see their kids. It’s really one big party.
“You can grab a beer or a hot dog and still watch the game. You are right on top of the action. There’s no better place to watch a hockey game.”
Attendance was up 20 percent last year despite a reduction in the number of seats, McCall said, and that shows people are responding to the changes.
The USHL took notice too, honoring the Lumberjacks with the 2019 “Organization of the Year” award.
“Our goal is to win it again this year and the next year,” McCall said. “We want to continue to be the best team in this league.”
The Lumberjacks, who feature players ages 17 to 20 on the development track to major college or professional hockey, are a community experience and attribute, McCall said. With the majority of the team’s games on Friday or Saturday nights, the setting is ideal for families, business or group outings or just getting friends together.
“Coming to a Lumberjacks game is a release,” he said. “You’re going to yell, you’re going to scream, and you’re going to cheer. You’re going to see people you know, have some food and beverages and just have a great time.”
That is exactly the atmosphere that Andrea Sponaas has witnessed.
“If there’s one thing that’s been consistent, it’s been the jaw-drop (from people) as soon as they walk in,” said Sponaas, the vice president of corporate partnerships for the team. “You can tell the people who have not been here since the renovations. It’s awestruck. It’s ‘Oh, my gosh, this is fantastic.’”
Lumberjacks games are safe, clean, affordable and convenient, Sponaas said, and the team’s leaders wants to keep the momentum going.
“We’re making sure we’re bringing in new fans and exposing them to how great this league is and exposing them to the atmosphere that we’ve built,” said Sponaas, who was with the team 10 years ago when it launched in Muskegon.
“The Muskegon Lumberjacks of today are an entirely different experience. If folks haven’t been to the game recently, experienced the arena changes, I think they’re really missing out.”
On the hockey side, Lumberjacks Head Coach Mike Hamilton said fans can expect 100 percent effort and an exciting, active style of play. The USHL is the highest level of junior hockey in the country, he said. Prospects come from around the world to play in the league. The players have moved away from their homes – in some cases their countries – to pursue their dreams.
“Everyone who plays youth hockey, this is their goal,” he said. “Every night they’re being evaluated, not just by us, but if you look around, there are NHL and college scouts. The dream starts here.”
“They make a huge commitment just to be here and develop into the best hockey players they can be, but they recognize that they’re here to be part of the community. Muskegon is invested in them and their actions on and off the ice reflect on Muskegon. We win together.”
Visit the Lumberjacks website to find the team’s schedule and learn more about Muskegon’s team.