Multi-purpose arenas are everywhere. We see them in the NBA and NHL. We also see them in the NCAA. Big schools like Wisconsin and Ohio State use their large basketball venues for hockey as well. They can work. They can even be very successful.
In the case of NCAA Hockey, I have found that the greatest experiences are in those small, classic, character-filled arenas. Western Michigan definitely has one of these. Lawson Arena is a classic NCAA arena. With a small capacity of fewer than 4,000, Lawson Arena is an experience unlike your typical NHL or AHL game. Since 1974, the Western Michigan Broncos have been providing this unique hockey experience for students, alumni, and residents of Kalamazoo.
The Broncos currently play in the CCHA with close rivals Michigan, Michigan State and Northern Michigan. They will be separated from their Michigan rivals as the conference shakesup its Division I hockey as well. In 2013, Western Michigan will move to the new NCHC. They will be the only Michigan school in that conference.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Concessions at Lawson Arena are very simple. I found only one concession stand. The concessions mirrored those of Waldo Stadium. Coke is the soda of choice. Popcorn, fries, burgers, hot dogs, and candy are all available. Burgers, BBQ sandwiches, and hot dogs come in around $5. Candy and popcorn are $2, and I actually saw a menu item for $1, chips. It was the first time I saw any menu item anywhere for only $1 in a long, long time! There is nothing overly unique for sale at Lawson Arena, but the prices are pretty good. There is no alcohol for sale at Lawson Arena.
It's amazing how an older arena, lacking amenities can be so much better than a clean, shiny, stale arena.
Lawson Arena has character.
It starts with the small capacity. At fewer than 4,000 seats, there is a cozy feel to Lawson Arena. The main level is at the top of the seats and metal benches with backs comprise the seating bowl. Behind one net there are traditional chair seats, that come at a bit more of a price. To get to this section you actually have to travel down to ice level and then cross either the players' entrance or the zamboni bay, which is either a pain in the butt, or really neat. When I first made my way down, I had to wait for the Alabama-Huntsville players to cross for warm-ups. Any way you slice it, the sightlines at Lawson Arena are excellent.
The character of the building is further enhanced by the school's dedication to showcasing its fairly distinguished alumni. At one end of the upper concourse there are framed jerseys of all of the Western Michigan alumni to play in the NHL. Many are autographed. In the outer hallway, where the concessions are, there are team pictures featured from each year the Broncos have played hockey. This can be some fun. I spent a bit of time trying to find my favorite broadcaster, Western Michigan Alumnus and fellow Canadian, John Saunders. In fact, it seems that WMU has a number of broadcasters they count as alumni, including Saunders, former Rangers GM Neil Smith, Glenn Healy, and Keith Jones.
Hanging above the ice surface are the banners commemorating the Bronco appearances in the Frozen Four tournament and CCHA championships. Also hanging over the ice are banners honoring the Western Michigan Hockey Hall of Fame. These alums include Bernie Saunders, Glenn Healy, Rob Hodge and Neil Smith, among others.
I normally attempt to steer clear of considering fans as part of the atmosphere, but in this case there is no possible way. The Lawson Lunatics bring so much to the game that they can't be ignored. Without the Lunatics, this game would have not been nearly as fun.
Lawson Arena is right in the heart of the campus of Western Michigan University. There are not too many options right handy, but if you go a bit up Stadium Drive you can find a few more options. I stuck with something safe and hit Buffalo Wild Wings. Although it is not really unique, you know what you get with this chain.
The Lawson Lunatics are unbelievable! The student section, at centre-ice is the posted home of the Lawson Lunatics. These students are really into their hockey! It starts off with a huge ovation for the little kids that play in the mini-game before the final flood. It moves on to a huge ovation for the official scorekeepers as they make their way across the ice to the penalty box area. They continue with huge reactions as the teams make their way on the ice. In probably the most comedic part of the Lunatic routine, the Lunatics turn their back to the ice when the visiting team's starting line is being introduced. After each name is announced, they quite enthusiastically proclaim, "Who cares? He sucks!" This banter continues throughout the game. The Lunatics have a chant for the visiting goaltender after he lets in a goal. They make sure to thank the PA announcer when he states there is a minute left in the period. Overall, the Lawson Lunatics make going to the Broncos hockey game a memorable and fun experience.
The only reason that this is not a full five out of five mark is that there are so many empty seats around the rest of the arena. It was disappointing to see a lack of support that the hockey team received on homecoming weekend. There may be a bit of Bronco burnout on a weekend like this as there was a football game earlier in the day, and the hockey team was competing against the volleyball team at the same time. The non-conference game may have been an issue as well. Larger crowds show up for conference games, especially if Michigan or Michigan State is playing.
Lawson Arena is very close to the intersection of Stadium Drive and Howard Street. These two major streets are easy to maneuver. It can be a little confusing once you enter the WMU campus, but not a major problem. A pleasant surprise is finding FREE parking at Lawson Arena. A little extra maneuvering is well worth the free parking.
Washrooms are pretty small and the outer concourses are narrow, but not too bad considering the attendance for the games.
The top ticket for Western Michigan Hockey is $15. That is if you want to pay for the seats with backs. You can also get seats for $10, so value is in the house at Western Michigan. Combine that with FREE parking and pretty good concession prices, and you have an evening's entertainment at a really good price. The opportunity to see high caliber hockey at this price is obviously lost on many. Hopefully Kalamazoo catches on.
An extra point is awarded for the opportunity to catch a homecoming doubleheader, with the Broncos taking on Bowling Green in football earlier in the day.
An extra point is awarded for those crazy Lawson Lunatics.
An extra point for all of the things you can see that showcase the history of Western Michigan Broncos Hockey.
An extra point is awarded for the Western Michigan Broncos head coach Andy Murray, who brings an NHL pedigree with him as a former head coach of the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues. It is unusual to see a former NHL head coach find his way into NCAA hockey.
My trip to Lawson was a very pleasant surprise. From the vast history on display, to the entertaining Lawson Lunatics, the Broncos are well worth your time and money. I would suggest that if you have the opportunity, take in one of those few games that remain where the Broncos will host one of their Michigan rivals. You won't regret it!
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355 E Kalamazoo Ave
Kalamazoo, MI 49007
3209 Stadium Dr
Kalamazoo, MI 49008
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