NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — It’s been a long time coming, but slowly but surely, the three-phase renovation to Merrimack’s S. Peter Volpe Athletic Center ice rink is taking shape.
Fans who attended the team’s home opener Oct. 18 against Hockey East rival New Hampshire got a glimpse of what the future holds, and if the work done so far is any indication, the finished product should bring the suburban Boston school firmly into the 21st century in terms of Division I hockey facilities. And in a tip of the cap to the program’s long and storied past, several alumni have banded together to lead a movement to name the renovated arena after legendary former coach J. Thom Lawler.
Two of the three phases of the project are done, with the third phase planned tentatively to begin construction in June 2003. Phase one, involving a new lobby, expanded weight room and new athletic offices, took place in 1999.
A new 7,500 square foot two story addition was the second phase, built during the summer of 2001. The addition’s first floor includes a spacious new locker room, changing facilities, equipment and training rooms, lounge, and coaches’ room.
“A first-class facility like this is a benefit to our recruiting efforts and the attitude of the team,” associate head coach Mike Doneghey told the Eagle-Tribune. “This rivals any facility in Hockey East.”
The lounge area features a large screen television and two computers with Internet access.
The addition also includes a locker room, coaches’ room and shower area slated for women’s hockey, which Merrimack is expected to add in the next few years. Hockey East has already announced plans for a women’s league to begin no later than the fall of 2004. Currently, the area is used as an exercise room and officials’ changing area.
The most visible change from inside the rink is the second story of the addition, featuring four new luxury boxes that overlook the ice surface. One box is reserved for use by school president Richard J. Santagati, while the other three are for lease at a cost of $15,000 a year. Two of the three boxes have been leased already. Each box includes a television, kitchen facilities and a refrigerator, as well as seats for visitors to watch the action on the ice.
Members of the team’s new Blue Line Club also have a place to meet and eat during games in a comfortable club room that spans the other half of the second story. Previously, gatherings were held on the basketball court on the other side of the athletic center.
Phase three of the five year, $7.5-million project, slated to begin in 2003 following graduation in May, will involve the removal of the nearly 30-year old bleachers, relocating of the ice surface and the pouring of an oval shaped concrete foundation around the rink on which 3,000 individually backed seats will be installed.
As part of the fundraising for the project, backers are being offered the opportunity to sponsor a seat for $2,000.
A new 10,000-foot, two-story glazed lobby will be constructed, allowing fans to enter the arena directly from the parking lot. Fans will walk down to their seats from a concourse level overlooking the rink. The second floor of the lobby will have a 3,000 square foot VIP lounge, replacing the Blue Line Club room, which will be converted to a press box and four additional luxury boxes to give the facility a total of eight.
Director of Athletics Bob DeGregorio said that the school is exploring several options for games and practices during the 2003-04 season. Possible sites include the Valley Forum in Lawrence, Brooks School in North Andover, and Phillips Academy in Andover, all in Massachusetts, as well as the Icenter in Salem, N.H.
“There is also some talk that we play all three games at one school, say like BC, and we get a gate [receipts] from there, or maybe play in Salem [Icenter],” Doneghey told the Eagle Tribune. “Coach Serino lived through this already at UNH [during the construction of the Whittemore Center]. They lived on the road for the year.”
In a challenge issued recently to the community, former players John Donovan, Ron Connors and Ken Duane have pledged to match up to $500,000 any donations earmarked for naming the renovated rink after Lawler, their former coach. Lawler coached Merrimack through its rise in Division II from 1965-78 and passed away unexpectedly at age 44, several months after directing the team to the 1978 NCAA Division II Championship.
“Coach Lawler had a substantial impact on the lives and careers of many, many Merrimack College hockey players. He was a great educator beyond the sport of hockey and to this day garners tremendous respect and affection from his former players, fans, alumni and the entire Merrimack College community,” said Donovan.
It is expected that Merrimack will re-open the renovated facility during the 2004-05 season.