By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks are finally going to get to play a few games on their home ice.

Unfortunately, fans will not be allowed at home games for at least a while longer, due to the state’s extension of the COVID-19 shutdown. Nobody knows when the crowd restrictions will be eased or lifted.

Lumberjacks President Mike McCall told on Tuesday that the team will play its scheduled home games on Friday, Dec. 18 and Saturday Dec. 19 against the Chicago Steel at Muskegon’s Mercy Health Arena.

Those will be their first home games of the 2020-21 season, following 10 on the road.

The Lumberjacks’ original home opener, under the league’s amended COVID schedule, was supposed to be Friday Nov. 27, with the second home game the following night. Both games were rescheduled for later in the season.

As it turns out, those games could have been played, because the Jacks are categorized as a professional sports organization by the state, much like the Detroit Lions and the college football teams that have been playing.

But the Lumberjacks’ management chose to postpone them, because they wanted to move home games down the schedule, in the hope that tickets could be sold in coming months. Obviously the team loses a lot of revenue when tickets can’t be sold, and local fans are frustrated by home games they cannot attend.

The Jacks have also been open to the idea of trading dates with other teams – playing scheduled home games on the road in exchange for home dates later in the season. But the potential for those kind of schedule swaps is drying up, so the team decided to go ahead with its home opening weekend on Dec. 18-19 against the Chicago Steel in a very quiet Mercy Health Arena, with nobody in the stands cheering.

The status of two more scheduled home games – Dec. 29-30 against Dubuque  – remains up in the air, although there is a chance those games will be played in Muskegon as scheduled.

The potentially good news for fans is that the Jacks will have 21 home games remaining between January and April. When the league was drawing up its amended COVID schedule, the Jacks requested and received a lot of road games early and home games later, in the hope that at least some fans could be present. That hope still exists, beyond the two home-opening games against Chicago.

But whether fans are allowed at future home games or not, they are going have to be played in Muskegon.

“We are running out of dates in later months,” McCall said. “So we’re going to play the 18th and 19th without fans, just because we are not allowed to have any.

“Obviously the players have played six games on the road, and will have several more this week and next week. They deserve to have some home games, for sure.

“The guys have just been happy to be playing, even if that means getting on a bus and travelling. Youngstown and Chicago and Team USA are fairly close. Dubuque is the only one that has been a little further out there. The players are in great shape, they are practicing, they are healthy, and they are anxious to play some home games.”

The Lumberjacks are currently 3-2-1 on the season, good for seven points in the standings and third place in the United States Hockey League’s Eastern Conference. They are five points behind first-place Chicago and two points behind second-place Green Bay.

They are scheduled to play this Thursday, Friday and Saturday in Dubuque, then Dec. 16 in Plymouth, Michigan against Team USA, before coming home on the 18th and 19th.