By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – In sports, everyone loves a winner.

They better your team, the bigger the crowds, right?LSJ Logo incert

But the Muskegon Lumberjacks seem to be an exception to that rule.

In 2014-15, the Lumberjacks had their best season in the five-year history of the franchise, winning the Eastern Conference championship and advancing to the Clark Cup finals.

They averaged 2,089 fans for home games at L.C. Walker Arena.

This season has been far less successful on the ice for the Lumberjacks. They are currently 20-22-6 and in seventh place out of nine teams in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. They are 16 points out of the last playoff spot with only 12 games remaining.

Yet home attendance has jumped to an average of 2,175 fans through 23 games, an increase of nearly 100 per game over last season’s final average. The team’s total attendance thus far is 50,036.

The Lumberjacks will kick off a seven-game home stand this weekend, beginning with Friday and Saturday games against Sioux City. Puck drop is 7:15 p.m. both nights. The last five games of the regular season will be on the road.

The increasing fan interest has been particularly obvious since late December. The Lumberjacks have drawn 24,003 fans over their past 10 home games, for an average of 2,400 per game.

Even more impressive is that ticket giveaways have decreased significantly, meaning more fans at the games actually purchased their seats, according to team officials.

The last home game on Feb. 27 was the highlight of the 10-game stretch, when 3,828 fans packed the arena. And the Lumberjacks played a great game and beat a good Omaha Lancers squad 4-2.

That was a trend-breaker for the Jacks, who have a tendency to lose in front of bigger home crowds. Before Feb. 27, the Jacks had won only 25 percent of their home games this season in front of crowds over 2,500, and 43 percent in front of smaller houses.

“We had a lot of good groups that night and several local businesses that helped drive up that (attendance) number, and the team played well,” Tim Taylor, the Lumberjacks’ vice president for business operations, said about the Feb. 27 game. “Our hope is that there are more of those games to come. We’re working hard to get there.”

There are a number of reasons for the increased attendance, according to Taylor.

One is the presence of first-year owner Dan Israel, a Bloomfield resident who is known for his work ethic and drive to succeed in business. That drive has rubbed off on the Lumberjack staff, which has in turn sold more tickets.

“I think there is more accountability now that there might have been previously,” Taylor said. “Dan is hands-on, he wants this to succeed, and he’s giving the staff all the tools it needs to do so. It’s been a concerted effort by everyone. We all want to see full houses, from the players to the fans to the ownership.”

Taylor also believes that local fans are finally catching on to the skill level of elite junior hockey. The United States Hockey League features top college and pro prospects who are honing their skills before moving on to bigger challenges.

The National Hockey League has many players with USHL experience, including Detroit Red Wings rookie sensation Dylan Larkin and Muskegon’s own Justin Abdelkader.

“I think people are having a better understanding of what this league is and the caliber of play involved,” Taylor said. “Regardless of where the team happens to be in the standings, they have the opportunity to watch some of the most elite young athletes in the world play the game.”