In the final minutes of the Muskegon Lumberjacks’ season opener Saturday night, thousands of people were on their feet: children wildly waved balloons and danced on steps; adults raised beers; nearly everyone seemed to pump their fists into the air.
“We love you forever!” one man in a Jacks jersey yelled to the hockey team that was about to dominate the Chicago Steel in a 6-0 shutout, prompting everyone around him to break into even more fervent cheers for the best start in the Lumberjacks’ history.
It was a night of seemingly nonstop excitement: for hours, an audience of 3,009 people roared with enthusiasm as the Lumberjacks’ goals kept coming during a game that marked the beginning of a new era for the renovated L.C. Walker Arena in downtown Muskegon.
“It’s just as important for us as the city because we’re trying to draw the top players,” Lumberjacks Head Coach Mike Hamilton said of the arena’s nearly $1 million facelift. “It takes us to another level.”
The extensive renovation work at the 58-year-old arena has transformed the space into a venue that’s meant to draw everyone from sports fans to foodies and those who want a space to hang out with friends and family. The expanded facility includes: party decks where there can be groups of about 10 to 30 people, a pavilion with flat screen televisions broadcasting a variety of sports events, a beer garden, a “kid zone” that will feature a professional clown at most of the Lumberjacks’ games, executive suites with private seating and catered meals from Teddy Spaghetti’s and Bella Maria’s, an area designated for the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy marching band—which will be entertaining the crowds during most of the home games, the previously opened Rad Dads’ Tacos & Tequila Bar, and more.
Of the arena renovations’ nearly $1 million price tag, about $750,000 is coming from the Downtown Development Authority and approximately another $230,000 is from the city’s public improvement fund. City officials, business owners, and sports leaders alike emphasize the new space will not solely be a hub for hockey, but rather a community center that’s meant to highlight the best of urban planning: an affordable, entertaining space that will play host to a wide variety of events and draw a diverse crowd of people from throughout the city and region.
“It needed a facelift; it was time to update the arena and bring more people downtown,” said Muskegon Lumberjacks Administrative Assistant Ann Pendery. “It’s part of the rebuilding of downtown.”
In addition to drawing crowds to an ever-expanding downtown, the changing arena is emblematic of a team that too is transforming, said John Carey. A man of a countless number of hats (and some truly incredible outfits) at the Lumberjacks, Carey works in the sales office, sells 50/50 tickets to raise money for the Reading Caravan—part of the Jacks’ charitable efforts that support literary efforts among Muskegon youth, sharpens skates for youth hockey, and more.
“The biggest change I’ve seen over the years is all the hungry players,” said Carey, who began his love affair with hockey as a stickboy with the Muskegon Zephyrs in 1963. “The change is the speed of the game, the intensity these guys play with. Last year, we had a game with 50 scouts and had five of our guys go to the [National Hockey League].”
The team draws people from around the country—and even globe, with players hailing from Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Canada.
“They’re an amazing team,” said Liam McNeight, who made the drive from Lansing to see Saturday’s game. “I’ve been coming to Muskegon for a while for hockey games; I have friends here, and it’s been really nice to see the changes that are happening in the city. It’s a lot more fun to hang out here now; I almost always stay in the city after the games because of that.”
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Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Photos by Anna Gustafson, unless otherwise noted. You can connect with her by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.