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Official Review by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The Merrimack Warriors hockey team plays at the J. Thom Lawler Arena at the S. Peter Volpe Athletic Center. Locals refer to the arena more succinctly as Lawler Arena. The arena is named after J. Thom Lawler, the winningest coach in Warriors history, who died in 1978 at the age of 44 just after coaching the team to a Division II National Championship. Shortly thereafter, Merrimack moved up to Division I and joined the prestigious Hockey East Conference. Lawler Arena is part of a larger athletic complex, which is named after Merrimack College board of trustee member and benefactor S. Peter Volpe, whose construction company also built the McQuaid Library on campus.
The hockey arena underwent an expensive renovation in the spring and summer of 2010, during which the bleacher seating present in the rink at the time was replaced with seatback chairs and a student section was added on one end of the rink. As a result of these renovations capacity at the Lawler Arena was reduced, but attendance has skyrocketed since completion.
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".
There is one concession stand located in the main lobby, and another small stand located in the "secret" rear lobby. Fans looking for a snack can find a good variety of items to choose from here, including hot dogs ($3.50), hamburgers ($4), chicken fingers ($4.75), pizza ($4), and nachos ($3.50). Fans looking for snacks will be pleased to find pretzels ($3.25), popcorn ($3.50), and a wide variety of other items. If you are watching your figure, fruit is even available. Pepsi products are featured here for $2, and many menu items are available in combo deals or four person family packs to maximize savings.
If arena food doesn't tickle your fancy, there is a fully-functioning Dunkin' Donuts offering their signature coffee, donuts, pastries, and sandwiches. All items purchased in the Dunkin' Donuts here can be brought into the arena for enjoyment during the game. A large Dunkin' coffee or hot chocolate can go a long way towards warming up the fans during a cold February night game.
Also located in the arena lobby is a full-sized bookstore where fans can purchase any number of Merrimack College souvenirs. If you can't find the Merrimack swag you seek here, it doesn't exist.
Lawler Arena is the smallest rink in terms of capacity in Hockey East, but when this building is filled with students and fans, there is a definite home ice advantage in affect. Unfortunately, the reputation of the student body is somewhat overstated. I found them to be no more involved or loud than other student sections I have seen in action. In fact, the atmosphere at Lawler Arena depends more on music coming through the PA system than it does on the college's pep band and student body. In my mind, turning down the music and turning up the crowd would be a better way to go. Still, there is no denying the electricity that a capacity crowd brings to a Merrimack College game. With its low ceiling, standing room only crowd, and fans right on top of the action, a crowd at Lawler Arena can rock the building to its foundations when it gets going.
The picturesque Merrimack College campus is located on busy Turnpike Road in North Andover, a short distance from Interstates 93 and 495. North Andover is your typical bedroom community, with plenty of shops and restaurants for locals, but nothing that would classify the town as a "must see" destination. Visitors to Lawler Arena will most likely not be staying in the immediate vicinity of the campus, but should seek out Boston as a place to spend the bulk of their time. Visiting fans looking for cheaper alternatives than are available in Boston will find plenty of dining and lodging options right near the campus on route 114, or on the Interstate 495 corridor in Andover, Lawrence, and neighboring towns.
Capacity at Lawler Arena is listed as just over 2500, but with standing room, crowds often top that figure. Ice Hockey is the school's only Division I sport, and fans come out strong to support the program. There is a large student body section who sit behind the opposing goalie during two periods, and they work hard to be a distraction to him.
The team works hard to integrate itself into the community, and the sight of local youth hockey players running around the arena in uniform is common. Factor in a strong alumni base, and several local rivals in the Hockey East Conference, and you have the ingredients necessary for consistent sellouts.
I was ready to award the fans at Lawler Arena a perfect 5/5 score, but a large section of the crowd committed an unpardonable sin. They left the game EARLY! Not early as in leaving with a few minutes left in the third period, but many left after the completion of the second period. This left large sections of the stands empty, including a good third of the student section. I'm sorry, Warrior fans, but that kind of behavior can't be rewarded with a perfect score.
The city of Boston dubs itself "The Hub of Hockey," and when talking about college hockey, it's hard to dispute this fact. Of the 58 NCAA Division I college hockey programs, 20 are located in New England, and 12 are within an hour's drive of Boston. The Merrimack campus in North Andover is well within that radius, located 32 miles from the city just off of Interstate 495. Fans travelling from Boston can reach the Merrimack Campus by taking Interstate 93 to Route 125, or Interstate 495 to Route 114. Fans arriving to the area by air will most likely arrive at nearby Logan Airport in Boston. If not driving, the easiest method of transportation to Merrimack would be to take an MBTA train to the Andover station. Once in Andover, the college offers shuttle service to points around town. With North Andover being your typical suburban town, the easiest method of travel to arrive at the Merrimack campus is by car.
Once at the Merrimack College campus, free parking is available in a large parking lot a short walk from the arena. There is a large lobby where the ticket offices, bookstore, Dunkin' Donuts, concession stands, and restrooms are located. This area of the arena is bright, new, and easy to navigate. There are two doors to enter the arena on either side of the concession stand, which lead to a narrow walkway along the glass. The seating bowl consists of 13 sections with 10 rows of bucket seats, another benefit of recent renovations. The only bleacher seating remaining in Lawler Arena is the student section on the near end of the rink. Access within the arena can be quite difficult due to the sellout crowds common at Merrimack. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the teams must cross the walkway to reach the locker rooms, meaning that fans must wait until the teams have cleared the ice to make their way to the lobby.
Bathrooms are new, clean, and spacious. Lines are minimal even during intermission. One way to avoid the inevitable crowds that form in the lobby is to adjourn to the "secret" lobby located at the rear entrance to the hockey rink. This lobby, which is located between the rear of Lawler Arena and the basketball court next door, is much less crowded than the front lobby, and contains a snack bar and large restrooms. Stumbling across this area can be quite a coup for those looking to avoid the crowds of the main lobby.
Tickets for Merrimack College hockey games cost $20 for adults, which is a steep price for college hockey in this area. Seniors and youths are admitted for a mere $5. The somewhat high price for tickets is offset by free parking and affordable concessions. When comparing these prices to other college hockey teams in the area, they are comparable to many other local college programs, and can provide a cheaper alternative to professional teams in the area.
One extra point is awarded for the consistent standing room only crowds at Lawler Arena. The smallest school in Hockey East takes a back seat to no one with their fans' dedication.
A second extra point is awarded for the "secret" lobby located at the rear of the arena. Anyone looking to avoid crowds during intermission should head to the back of the house, where you can check out the many trophies accumulated by the various Warriors teams of the past, peek into the Bert Hammel basketball court, and grab a snack without waiting in line.
A third extra point is awarded for the combination of full-sized Dunkin' Donuts and full-sized bookstore attached to the front lobby. DD is a staple in New England, and fans needing a coffee or pastry will find anything they need here, and can bring it into the arena.
Men's hockey is the only Division I sport at Merrimack College. As such, it receives the lion's share of the attention at this small Catholic college. Merrimack College has a student body of just over 2,200 students, not even enough to fill up Lawler Arena if every student showed up for a game. Yet somehow, the arena is filled to capacity and beyond for most home games. This has given the Warriors a huge home-ice advantage in recent years, and makes Lawler Arena one of the more intimidating venues for visiting teams.
Member Review by thedancingushertdgarden on Nov 21, 2014
Overall I'd give Lawler Arena' s UPGRADED rink a 4.5 . The food and beverage is all right. Could use a few more options. I usually get a slice of pizza and a dunkin donuts vanilla chai....they could use a few more options for food but the food is pretty decent imho for college hockey concessions. The atmosphere is great . The student section is involved and you are up close to the action. I can bring my cannon camera with a long lens and sit in the front row or move around to other parts of the arena during the game and get super high quality photos of the game. The fans are great and when the team is winning are quite lively. Though like any arena when the team is losing or behind by a bit, it can get quiet. The team does need a mascot though to liven things up some would be cool if they had one at the games and more in between period entertainment. There wasn't enough going on during the intermissions as in some arenas. More crowd involvement by the staff in the games is needed as well. The stadium should hire real USHERS for the arena....to help with tickets and such. Its pretty self explanatory to find your seat, but I did see a lot of people who needed assistance with seating and no one there to help. They have outside security through RSIG security but they are not dedicated ushers. Would be nice to have dedicated ushers at the stadium. Maybe a bit more signage as well. But other than those minor things the stadium atmosphere is a great one. Not many rinks give you this close a view of college hockey any more. The neighborhood is in a suburban location of Boston....surrounded by woodlands. Not too much in services around but there are services on route 114, 28 and in the town centers. Access is easy and recommended only by car. No other transportation really close by that time of night. Route 93 to 125 with a sharp left turn onto 114 to the next intersection for the entrance to the campus. there could be a few more signs directing people to the rink from Route 114. and 125. like mayeb a big sign on 125 and 114 saying Merrimack Warriors Lawler Rink with an arrow. The tickets are fairly priced around $25.00 for even a seat near the blue line. comparable with most arenas in college hockey the college hockey experience in New England is the best return of investment for your $$$. They have a nice new gift shop now with lots of merchandise...a little known fact for parking is that you can park in the woods along the main drive toward the arena if the other spaces are taken.
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