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Renovated Lawler Arena perfect for renovated Merrimack program
Last night's Merrimack men's hockey home opener was the 51st in the history of J. Thom Lawler Arena, which opened its doors for the first time on Nov. 28, 1972.
J. Thom Lawler led the Warriors to a national championship while playing in this building in 1978. Ron Anderson led the Warriors to their first D-I NCAA Tournament while playing in this building in 1988. Mark Dennehy brought the Warriors back to the NCAA Tournament while playing in this building in 2011, and in this building, Scott Borek has built a program that could create Merrimack's first back-to-back NCAA Tournament berths ever.
We'll find out in March.
Merrimack's NHL'ers all skated on Lawler's ice. Jimmy Vesey, the best D-II player in the country in 1988, skated here. So did Jim Hrivnak, John Jakopin, and Greg Classen. Recent NHL'ers Johnathan Kovacevic, Karl Stollery, Stephane Da Costa, Collin Delia, and Brett Seney all did as well.
Before Steve McKenna skated on Mario Lemieux's right wing as his bodyguard in 1997 with the Pittsburgh Penguins ... he skated as a Warrior on the Lawler sheet.
All that history, but the building never looked as good as it did last night.
The completion of a multi-million dollar renovation was unveiled, and the Warriors helped ring in the occasion with a 4-1 win over Clarkson.
There were new amenities all over the building. The crowning jewel was the addition of the new "Gallant Pavilion," named after longtime Merrimack benefactors Richard and Susanna Gallant, who made a multi-million dollar donation to the project. The college called the donation a "transformative gift" when it was announced last spring.
The club features all the amenities you'd expect from an upscale premium ticket experience, including food, drinks, and extra large leather seats behind the net where the Warriors shoot twice.
The entire north end of the arena was restructured.
Perhaps most impressively was the timeline. Merrimack got the project done in less than six months. I've never seen a place complete construction projects faster.
With the Gallant Pavillion moving behind the net, the student section was moved to the other end of the rink, underneath and next to the giant video board installed last year.
There were nearly 1,000 students in the building last night, filling up four sections of seats, and standing six or seven deep behind the nets and into the corners.
They exploded in the first period when Matt Copponi scored on an end-to-end rush, splitting defenders in the process, to give the Warriors an early lead.
"These games are the best," said one Merrimack student, decked out in a yellow t-shirt the school provided. "I wasn't sure what I would think about (the students) moving to the other end, but it's super loud with the band. And ..."
That's when he got cut off by Mac Welsher's goal, which gave the Warriors a 2-0 lead in the second period. Before I could get the student's name, he had run down the aisle and was celebrating with classmates.
It was an electric atmosphere.
The old Blue Line Club was completely remodeled into the new "Champions Club," which is a premium concourse. The wall was blown out, and the rink feels larger thanks to the removal of the club room wall and the expanded area that Gallant Pavillion provides.
New ribbon scoreboards are on the way. They'll be installed in front of the press box and in the corners below the new club seats.
For the general public, the most noticeable improvement is the state-of-the-art sound system. Merrimack's old sound system was out of date, and you could barely make out the public address announcer.
Now the building shakes like TD Garden when the bass kicks in, and PA announcer Ian Beauchesne's voice echoes through the building.
Look for a good portion of Merrimack basketball games to also take place in the arena this year.
All-in-all, the new-look building is an appropriate place for a new-look program.
Consider last night another chapter in Lawler's history.