By Justin Haggerty
MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks are starting to catch the attention of the community.
The Lumberjacks have been winning on the ice all year – they are 27-17-3 overall, good for 57 points in the standings. That puts them in fourth place in the USHL’s very competitive Eastern Conference, just seven points out of first place and in line for a postseason playoff spot.
The Jacks also boast a very good 17-8-1 record at home at L.C. Walker Arena.
But until recently, a lot of seats have been empty for home games. Prior to January 1st, an average of just 1,738 fans took in Jacks home games. That ranked near the bottom in average attendance for USHL teams.
That started to change between Jan.1 and last Saturday, when average attendance for the season jumped to 2,119. The previous five home games before Saturday drew crowds of 2,540, 1,925, 2,727, 2,649 and 2,654, for an average of 2,499.
Then on Saturday the Lumberjacks hit the jackpot, drawing a season-high 4,086 fans to witness an exciting 4-1 victory over first place Cedar Rapids.
“(The attendance) is encouraging to us,” said Lumberjacks General Manager John Vanbiesbrouck. “We want the community to rally around us. I was surprised (with Saturday’s attendance) and it’s hard to surprise me with a crowd.
“There’s a lot of hard work that goes into (ticket sales). We’re very thankful to have a great staff. ”
A lot of fans at Saturday’s game admitted they haven’t been to a hockey game in awhile, but most seemed pleased as they watched the Jacks get revenge for a Friday loss to Cedar Rapids.
“This is my first game in two years,” said Andrew Teasley of Muskegon Township. “It’s very good to be back in the stadium, watching the team play.”
For some, it was a first time experience.
“This is my first Lumberjacks game ever, my boyfriend dragged me here,” said Brittany Gudbrandson of St. Johns. “We’re having a great time, it’s a really fun environment.”
Others were making a return trip after attending a previous game this season.
“I was here a few weeks ago for a young professionals game, we had around 100 people on the party deck,” said Allison Wisneski of Grand Haven. “It was a good time and I wanted to come back.”
There were a few who came out to the game, but said they still prefer the days when Muskegon had a professional team.
The Lumberjacks are elite junior players who are bound for Division 1 college hockey programs.
Some, like Muskegon’s Matheson Iacopelli and Matej Paulovic, have already been drafted by National Hockey League teams. Others, like Lumberjack defenseman Joseph Cecconi, are considered top prospects for future NHL drafts.
“I’ve been to a few games, back in the day,” said Jesse James of Fruitport. “It’s not the same as it used to be, since the Lumberjacks were the Lumberjacks (in the old pro International Hockey League). I came tonight with friends to hang out and watch the game. I hadn’t been to one in a while so I thought I’d check them out.”
The Lumberjacks will embark on a six-game road trip starting this weekend, and will return home March 27-28 for games against Des Moines.