By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – The city of Muskegon has provided impressive new renovations to the L.C. Walker Arena, to make it more comfortable and customer-friendly.

The Muskegon Lumberjacks, under Coach Mike Hamilton, have put a winning team on the ice this season.

Fans have responded to those two factors with increased attendance at Lumberjacks games, and that apparently has convinced the team to stick around Muskegon, potentially through 2036.

Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton at Friday’s ┬ápress conference, flanked to his left by Muskegon City Manager Frank Peterson. Photo/Jason Goorman

At a press conference on Friday morning, Muskegon City Manager Frank Peterson and the Lumberjacks announced that the hockey team has entered into a new two-year lease with the city to continue to play at L.C. Walker Arena, with team options that could potentially extend the lease for 15 years beyond that.

The Lumberjacks will pay the city of minimum of $250,000 per year in rent, and other revenue “can escalate the potential” for the city to receive “over $350,000 per year,” according to the Lumberjacks.

Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton was so excited about the new lease that he announced that he will pay for the first beer for fans who purchase tickets to Friday night’s home game, from the time of the press conference until game time at 7:15 p.m. The press conference began at 11 a.m. on Friday.

That deal will also extend to fans who prefer soft drinks, according to the team.

“I’m really excited about this lease,” Hamilton said. “Tonight should be a night of celebration. Anybody who buys a ticket for tonight, from this press conference on, their first beer will be on me.”

On the ice, the Jacks are having the best season in their nine-year history. They are currently in first place in the United States Hockey League’s Eastern Conference with a 37-15-4 record.

Fan attendance has increased significantly this season. While the Lumberjacks had never averaged more than 2,200 fans per game in any previous season, and had never ranked in the top 10 in league attendance, this year they are averaging around 2,700 fans per game, and rank fifth in the 17-team league in attendance, according to Lumberjacks broadcaster Scott Bradford.

Peterson gave a lot of credit to the commitment of Lumberjacks owners Dan Israel and Bob Kaiser.

“If you’ve been around Muskegon hockey, prior to their arrival, the ownership groups did not show nearly the commitment to Muskegon that these owners have.

“What we’ve witnessed over the last few seasons, there were enough good things there to convince us to try to keep this ownership group around for as long as possible. They have been very open-minded as we’ve tried new things in the arena, and the product they have put on the ice and off the ice has driven attendance.

“This helps make downtown Muskegon vibrant and a place to go and have fun. The growth of the Lumberjacks has helped everything in downtown Muskegon, and we’re grateful for that.”

Hamilton noted that Michigan is the second most productive state in the nation in terms of producing junior hockey talent, and that Muskegon has the state’s only junior hockey franchise (not counting the U.S. national development team, which is based in Plymouth, Michigan).

“For me it’s very important to have a long-term commitment to have junior hockey in the state of Michigan,” said Hamilton, who spend years as an elite youth hockey coach in the Detroit area. “This deal is very important to me and very important to the youth hockey community. I’m very excited that our owners and the city have come together to make this work.”