December 7, 2019 - Lynchburg, Virginia
Located in the rolling hills of central Virginia, Lynchburg is home of Liberty University. Having opened in 1971 at the direction of Dr. Jerry Falwell, Liberty has grown to become the largest Christian university in the world. Liberty has a strong sports tradition, with many of the school's teams competing at the NCAA Division 1 level. Hockey here is at the ACHA level, but their program is among the gold standard teams in the ACHA. LaHaye Ice Center opened in 2006, and features modern colonial architecture which fits in nicely with the campus buildings around it. The football stadium and student fitness center are nearby. The arena is built into a hill and features a glass facade with the school's eagle logo built in. Walls are brick, and there are quite a few columns near entrances which carry on the uniform architecture throughout campus. The roof is flat, and, for an ACHA school, this is certainly one of the top club hockey arenas in the country. Liberty Flames hockey is well supported, and could easily pass for a NCAA Division 1 school from a presentation and facility standpoint. The Flames teams have had much on-ice success in recent years, although they are still chasing their first national championship. This early December Saturday night game took place as much of the campus population was getting ready to head home for Christmas break, but a good crowd showed up to support the Flames as they took on Slippery Rock. Lynchburg has a small town feel, and is home of 2 other colleges, but the Liberty campus seems to be a gathering place for local residents and students alike when the Flames sports teams are in competition.
Tickets for Liberty hockey are available at the box office near the front entrance of LaHaye Ice Center, with reserved seats going for $10 and general admission only $6. Students get free admission to the NCAA sports on campus, but have to pay $4 for hockey as that falls under the Club Sports banner. A lower lobby features an information desk, some displays of the other Flames sports that are part of the Club Sports organization, and a nicely stocked team store which also serves as a pro shop. Fans head into the arena through a staircase that leads to the upper lobby. An upper concourse runs behind the seating area, and is enclosed on the end of the ice where suite seating is available, and opens up to offer a view of the rink above the seating on the sides of the rink. One side of the ice features blue chairback seating that is 12 rows high and is the reserved seating section. The corners of the ice and end nearest the lobby feature aluminum bleacher seating, as dos the entire other side of the ice, something we are not crazy about for hockey. All seats offer a good view, and a narrow catwalk on the far end of the ice serves as the end portion of the concourse, but has many fans standing to view the game as well. With a listed capacity of 4000 LaHaye Ice Center could easily serve as the home of a NCAA Division 1 team, but with no geographically close opponents that is unlikely in the near future for Liberty. A pair of food concession stands are in the corners of the concourse, and the school has a state of the art video production room in the press box area, with many of their games televised on ESPN Plus. A modern video board hangs above center ice, and the low flat ceiling features open beams and duct work. There is no netting in front of the seating area except on the ends of the ice, and the interior of the arena has a clean modern look. LaHaye Ice Center is not what you would expect if your primary experience with ACHA hockey is late night games at small community arenas. This building provides an excellent place for both fans and players to enjoy hockey.
Although the facility at LaHaye Ice Center is first class what really stands out when attending a Liberty hockey game is the game day experience itself. Large crowds are on hand to support the Flames with a good mix of local fans and students. The video board is used remarkably well, with a pregame pump up video featuring every player on the roster, as well as cool segments with the players during media timeouts. A light show and inflatable tunnel are used as the team skates onto the ice. Liberty not only talks the talk, but also walks the walk when it comes to honoring Christ, as the pregame invocation takes place before the National Anthem, and the entire team prays at center ice after the game, with visiting players invited to join in if they please. The atmosphere in the arena is kept fun, with fan giveaways and t-shirt tosses, and the Flames mascot Sparky roams the concourse and greets fans. The Flames name comes not from the source of fire, but the term for a flock of eagles, known as a flame. Intermission contests are kept lively, with a fan shoot out and a game of musical chairs at center ice, and the whole presentation is inline with what you would see at a minor league hockey game, only without the abundance of sponsor announcements. Banners honor past teams, including both men's and women's teams. This game also featured an emotional pregame tribute as the team's captain, a senior, sustained an injury in the week prior which would require a long recovery, resulting in the end of his college hockey career. A video tribute was played and he skated out to take the opening draw, which he won legitimately, before skating to the bench and being hugged by his teammates as he last stepped onto the bench for his career. There was not a dry eye in the house. The Flames won easily, by a score of 7-1, and fans seemed to enjoy themselves throughout the evening. Although there is not a designated or organized student section a good amount of students were on hand and the fans are loud and supportive, with the low ceiling magnifying the noise. The Flames play a pair of midnight games each season as well, which are said to be extremely fun on this alcohol-free campus. Liberty hockey feels like an event more than just a game, and it is clear that the intent is to win, but also honor the Lord through displays of excellence. Central Virginia may not be thought of as a key hockey destination, but attending a game at LaHaye Ice Center is a blast, and the facility is top notch.