By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – Todd Robinson knows Muskegon hockey fans will respond to a winning team.
He played in front of many packed houses during his years with the professional Muskegon Fury and Muskegon Lumberjacks teams.
It’s no coincidence that those teams won a combined three league titles during that era. And it’s no coincidence that they got a lot of local media coverage.
Now Robinson is back working in the L.C. Walker Arena as an assistant coach for the junior Muskegon Lumberjacks of the United States Hockey League. The team is currently in training camp, leading up to its Sept. 26 regular season opener in Ann Arbor, and its home opener the next night against Madison.
The Lumberjacks have not drawn as many fans as they would like over the past four seasons. Last year they averaged 2,208 per game, third from the worst in the 16-team USHL.
To be fair, the Lumberjacks have yet to put a consistent winner on the ice, never finishing higher than fourth place in the regular season division standings, and never making a serious run at a Clark Cup title.
But a lot of people, including Robinson, believe this year’s Lumberjacks, with about a dozen players back from the 2013-14 squad, will be highly competitive. Among the returning players this year is Matt Iacopelli, who led the league with 41 goals last season.
But Robinson wonders if Muskegon fans will hear enough about the team, even if it has great success. He says media coverage is not the same as it was when he played here, and that could make a difference.
“I think Muskegon will follow a winner,” Robinson told Local Sports Journal last week, before departing with the Lumberjacks for three exhibition games in New York last weekend. “Look at Muskegon football. they win every year so people go watch.
“We (the old Fury and Lumberjacks) did well (with attendance) on the weekends, but it was different. It was easier for people to know about the team and find about the games because we were in the newspaper every day. People would look at the paper, say ‘they’re winning again this year, let’s go to a game.
“Now if you don’t follow us on Twitter or Facebook, it’s hard to find out about the team. We need to find a way to get our story out to people.”
Local Sports Journal will have a reporter at every Lumberjack home game once again this season, and will report the outcome of all road games, as well.
Robinson is one of the most successful players in the history of Muskegon hockey. He played for the old Fury and Lumberjack pro teams between 2000 and 2010, amassing 245 goals and 686 assists.
Perhaps his brightest moment in Muskegon came in the 2002 United Hockey League finals, when he scored a breakaway goal in overtime against the Elmira Jackals to clinch a Colonial Cup title for the Fury.
“I think we had 5,500 (fans) for that game.” he said.
Robinson finally wrapped up his playing career last season with Tulsa of the Central Hockey League.
While Robinson went on to play in other cities and leagues, he never really left Muskegon. He made the town his year-round home, and today lives with his wife Alexis and daughters Cambell, 8, and Harper, 5, in Roosevelt Park.
He said he knew the 2013-14 season would be his last on the ice, and he jumped at the chance to join the Lumberjacks staff when the position was offered in the spring.
Robinson said he has quickly learned to appreciate the talent and passion of the young players in the USHL. When comparing the players to minor league pros, he said the junior players are “on their way up, not out.”
“All of these kids are going to get college hockey scholarships,” Robinson said. “The speed and the hunger is there in these kids. Maybe that wasn’t there all the time (with the old pro teams). The game is obviously different from the juniors to the pros. The polish is a little different. But this is exciting hockey.
“It’s exciting to watch these kids from their junior days, then follow them as they move through college and into the pros.”
Robinson, who served as a player/assistant coach for several teams over the last few years, says the Lumberjack training camp has been going great.
The Jacks won two of their first three exhibition games last weekend in New York.
“I see the talent on the ice,” he said. “A lot of these guys have bright futures in front of them. They’ve responded to every challenge we’ve put in front of them, and this is one of the hardest training camps I’ve ever seen.
“Whether they are running the dunes or spending 2 1/2 hours on the ice, they have responded in a positive way.”