One hockey fan's journey to the arenas of North America
Lawson Ice Arena - Home of the Western Michigan University Broncos
January 26, 2019 - Kalamazoo, Michigan
When hockey fans think of the city of Kalamazoo it is often the ECHL's Kalamazoo Wings and Wings Event Center that come to mind. Across town, a somewhat more modest, but certainly more fun, hockey venue exists on the campus of Western Michigan University. Lawson Ice Arena opened on the edge of campus in 1974, and this place is a throwback to when teams played in intimidating barns in front of packed crowds of vocal supporters. The tan brick building is built into a hillside and has a rather low profile when looking at the arena from the main entrance end. The school's natatorium is attached, and the weathered brick exterior is topped by a brown metal roof. In a few spots on the building's exterior, including side entrances, the school's Bronco logo is displayed, and the rear lower entrance and parking lot gives a different vantage point as the roof and walls seem much higher there, as that is the downhill side of the structure. The walls have an octagonal shape which is noticeable from outside when walking around the building. A ticket was secured in the afternoon for this matchup against Denver in the box office lobby, which is simple and located just inside the main entrance, and features a small sidewalk outside and some team signage. The $15 price of a ticket is half what was paid the night before the see the Michigan Wolverines play, but thankfully the Big Ten style elitism does not exist at WMU. The WMU Broncos currently compete in the NCHC Conference and have been a mainstay in the college hockey scene for decades, having a fair amount of success over the years, including 6 NCAA Tournament appearances. Lawson Ice Arena certainly has a blue collar feel to it, and is an old school setting to watch hockey, often with large crowds on hand to root for the Broncos.
Fans assembled in the small box office lobby well before the time the doors opened to secure the last remaining stand room tickets for this Saturday night game on a snowy evening. Upon entering the arena you find yourself in the outer concourse which has a hallway made of brown and white cinder blocks and contains some trophies and memorabilia, team photos from past Broncos clubs, and also a food concession stand. Inside the arena itself you enter onto the upper concourse which runs in a U shape above the seating. The seating circles the ice in the U shape of the concourse, and there is a single grandstand on one end which completes the seating configuration. With a capacity of 3667 Lawson Ice Arena is intimate and fans are right on top of the action. All seating is yellow, with most being comprised of plastic benches with backs, and the rest made up of yellow chairback seating on the end with the separate grandstand. Seating is 13 rows high, and there is a small "luxury" section squeezed into one corner which features a bar area. An older center ice scoreclock hangs from the brown metal rafters which hold up the tan metal ceiling above the building. The upper concourse has several concession vendors, an the entire interior of the arena carries the scent of Bavarian nuts, which are available on the concourse. Despite closing in of 50 years of age, the arena has had a few upgrades over the years, including the installation of 3 video boards which are set up high in the corners of the building. NCHC logos are present on the corner wall of the arena, and the concourse has an excellent display of jerseys honoring Broncos who went on the the NHL, of which there are quite a few. A small alcove off of the outer lobby holds a makeshift merchandise table, and there is a wide variety of Broncos gear on sale at the games. Lawson Ice Arena is nothing fancy or state of the art, but it is the type of place that college hockey is best experienced in, and its gritty but well kept surroundings serve as a great home for Broncos hockey.
The thing that makes Lawson Ice Arena a great place to watch hockey is the atmosphere and feeling of tradition that fills the building. For this game fans were standing 2 rows deep on the concourse to root on their Broncos against Denver, who came into the contest ranked 3rd in the nation. The game day experience is driven by the students, known affectionately as the Lawson Lunatics, who are as engaged of a fan base as you will find anywhere in the world of college hockey. Unlike at most arenas, the students at WMU take their place at center ice, having the student section running the most of the length of one side of the arena, with the band assembled nearest the end. The Lunatics arrive early and stay in place the entire game, providing timely chants and heckles, and the entire student section turns their backs as the visiting team is introduced and yell "who cares you suck" as each opposing player is introduced This tradition is even carried on by the arena security staff, stationed near the student section as they turn their backs as well. A mascot dressed like a puck comes out at intermission tossing pucks into the crowd, and there are fan shootout contests at intermission as well. Although there is nothing fancy here from a technology standpoint the band and student section drives the atmosphere and with the Broncos dominating the much higher ranked Pioneers the fans on hand were having a great time. With a driving lake effect snow causing a large accumulation during the game a fairly large number of fans left early, and traffic exiting the various parking lots nearby made for long delays exiting the area. With a 5-1 win the Broncos handled things on the ice. Lawson Ice Arena is the kind of place that would never get built again, and its drab 1970's architecture is viewed as outdated by most sports fans. Hopefully though this old barn can continue to host WMU hockey for years to come as it is full of the intangibles that make a hockey arena great. Character and tradition shine here, and are something that can not be manufactured or designed, they just develop organically and the Broncos have seemed to have discovered that formula. With affordable tickets, great on ice action, and an amazing atmosphere, catching a WMU Broncos game is a memorable hockey experience.