By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
The Muskegon Lumberjacks organization learned a hard lesson last year.
There are fans who want to keep track of the Lumberjacks when they can’t make it out to a game at the L.C.Walker Arena, or when the team is on the road.
Traditionally radio broadcasts of all the games have taken care of that problem.
But last year, citing a shortage of revenue, the team’s former owners pulled the club off the airwaves. Suddenly fans were limited in their ability to follow the Jacks.
It’s not like most of them have the time or money to follow the club to Sioux Falls or Youngstown, and they vented their frustration to club officials.
The new owners heard about the outcry and addressed the problem over the summer. All 60 Lumberjack games will be on the radio this year, starting with last Saturday’s season opener in Green Bay.
The Lumberjacks radio home is WLAW, 92.5 on the FM dial.
The play-by-play is being handled by Muskegon native Bryan Fongers, who also serves as the Lumberjacks’ communications coordinator.
The next broadcasts will be Friday night when the LumberJacks face Team USA in Ann Arbor, and Saturday night from L.C. Walker Arena when the team opens its home schedule against Indiana.
“From the beginning of the season to the end of (last season), fans were voicing their strong opinions about not having (radio coverage),” Fongers said. “In short, they were pretty upset about it.
“The new ownership thought (radio) was vital to promote the Muskegon Lumberjacks brand to the passionate hockey fan base that we have. Since they can’t watch them on TV, radio is a great way for fans to keep up with the team when they are not at home.”
Fongers has deep hockey roots in Muskegon.
His grandfather, Dr. Lawrence Lauretti, was co-owner of the old Muskegon Mohawks of the International Hockey League from 1973-84. His father, Thom Fongers, played the role of the team mascot “Big Mo” at home games for the Mohawks.
Fongers fell in love with hockey watching the professional Muskegon Lumberjacks and Muskegon Fury play games at L.C. Walker Arena.
Fongers. a graduate of Grand Valley State University, previously worked in several roles at WBBL-FM in Grand Rapids. But he didn’t cut his teeth as a play-by-play announcer until last year, when he broadcast Lumberjacks games online for FastHockey.com.
His Lumberjack broadcasts will feature a pregame show with Muskegon coach Todd Krygier, intermission interviews with players and sponsors and a postgame show with all the highlights of the evening’s action.
“Hockey is a very tough sport to call due to the non-stop action and constant line changes during the play,” Fongers said. “You have to keep your mind sharp and focused on the game at all times while the puck is in play.”
Alternate captain says Jacks are ready to win
With only a handful of players returning from last year, and a lot of newcomers with no USHL experience, it was hard to predict how the Lumberjacks might fare this year.
The team’s preseason record of 1-4 did little to comfort fans that worried the young squad might take time to gel.
But those concerns may have been overblown, based on the team’s impressive 5-4 shootout victory in Saturday night’s season opener in Green Bay.
It was the Lumberjacks’s first victory in Green Bay in their three-plus seasons in the United States Hockey League.
Matt Mendelson is one of only six returning Lumberjacks from last season’s team. He admits he had concerns early on about many of his teammate’s lack of experience, but those doubts all faded following Saturday’s victory.
“Initially there was doubt, of course,” said Mendelson, who is serving as an alternate captain this year. “But after we got together as a team, we started to realize that the rest of these guys were going to fit in. And you definitely saw that last weekend in Green Bay.”
The Lumberjacks showed a lot of patience and grit in Green Bay, taking the lead throughout the contest, only to watch the Gamblers rally each time and eventually force overtime and a shootout.
Muskegon outscored Green Bay 2-0 in the shootout to claim the win.
“For having a bunch of guys playing their first game in the league, I think we kept our emotions in check and didn’t do anything too crazy.” Mendelson said. “Green Bay kept fighting back, and it would have been easy for us to give in and be proud of the fact that we got a tie, but we kept fighting.
“We stuck with it all the way through overtime and pulled out a huge win.”
Mendelson had high praise for another returning Lumberjack, goalie Jordan Uhelski, who had 38 saves on the night. Muskegon was outshot in the game 42-23.
“He was great last year and he didn’t get to start as many games as he probably deserved to,” Mendelson said. “This year he came back even stronger and faster. You can tell he’s primed to have a great season.”
After weeks of playing exhibition games in Atlantic City and Indianapolis, then opening the season in Wisconsin, Mendelson said he and his teammates are excited about playing in front of a home crowd Saturday night.
But the first order of business is beating Team USA on its home ice in Ann Arbor Friday, he said.
“Most of these guys have never played a real game at the arena,” Mendelson said. “There’s a lot of excitement about Saturday’s game. It will be nice to have some fans on our side for a change. But right now all of our focus is on Friday.”