It’s still early in the season, and I’m sure nobody in the Muskegon Lumberjacks front office is fretting over ticket sales and attendance.

But the top dogs can’t be thrilled, either.

The L. C. Walker Arena can comfortably seat about 5,000 per game, yet the Gunn-column-logo-1Lumberjacks continue to draw somewhere in the 2,000 range – usually a few hundred less – for just about every home game.

And it’s pretty much been that way for all four seasons of their existence.

This team deserves to have more fans in the seats. The Lumberjacks aren’t in first place, but they aren’t very far out. They win their share of games, never get blown out and never give up. They are an interesting team to watch.

Saturday night was a perfect example. The Lumberjacks didn’t play particularly well and trailed after two periods, but came roaring back with two goals in the final period to beat Youngstown 4-3.

Matt Mendelson scored the dramatic game-winner with just 14 seconds remaining. Yet only about 1,800 fans were on hand to see what turned out to be a great game.

I don’t pretend to have any inside knowledge about the economics of our hockey franchise. I have no idea how many tickets the club needs to sell to break even, or perhaps make a bit of money.

But common sense tells us that having as many as 3,000 empty seats every game can’t be making anybody in the front office jump for joy.

Remember, the Lumberjacks have a new ownership group this year, and they aren’t from these parts. They have no long-term loyalty to our area. They are business people. Either they will make enough money to meet their goals or they won’t.

If they don’t, they could conceivably move to another city, and that could finally be the end of higher-level, fan-based hockey in Muskegon.

That would be a terrible shame.

I know several long-term local hockey fans who have never given the Lumberjacks a chance, since they joined the United States Hockey League, a junior development circuit for top amateurs in their late teens.

They say they miss professional hockey in Muskegon and don’t want to spend money to watch a bunch of high school kids.

But these aren’t just any high school-age players. These are some of the top young prospects in the game, and more than a few of them will eventually surface in the National Hockey League.

They put on a fast, entertaining show, and there really isn’t much difference between their quality of play and the professionals who were here before.

Remember, the old Muskegon Fury and Lumberjacks professional teams were comprised of low-level pros, most of whom had little chance of moving up the ladder. The talent level of the USHL is noticeably superior. The players are just a bit younger.

The current Lumberjack team has been getting better and more intriguing as the weeks have gone by.

They started out as a group of players drafted by the old management team, which departed when the club was sold last summer. The new coach, Todd Krygier, had to come in and sort through a bunch of young players he knew little about and somehow fashion a competitive roster.

He’s done just that, with the help of a few trades in recent weeks to bring in more of the gritty, physical type of players the team was lacking. The Lumberjacks are currently 9-7-3 and playing better all the time. They are only a few points out of first place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference, and they’ve won three out of their last four home games.

The coolest thing about this team is its “never say die” attitude. Fifteen of its 19 games have been settled by one goal, and several have gone to overtime and shootouts.

As Krygier points out, the Lumberjacks sometimes make mistakes, but they keep clawing their way back.

Why is Muskegon the home for this exciting young development team? Because we’ve earned reputation as being a hockey town. We supported a professional franchise for more than 50 years, so USHL officials were willing to bet that we would provide a good home, and a solid fan base, for talented young players as they move their way toward the pro ranks.

Are we still a hockey town?

It would be great if all the sports fans around the area – and there are thousands – would take in a game or two every year and give this team a chance.

We still have quality hockey here in Muskegon. It would be foolish and tragic if we eventually lost another team due to our stubborn apathy.