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Cool Digs

By Ted Allen, February 17, 2016

Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the ice hockey program’s inception and the 10th anniversary of the LaHaye Ice Center’s construction, Liberty University officially reopened its renovated and expanded facility over Homecoming Weekend, drawing a near-capacity crowd of 4,000 fans.

The center is home to Liberty’s five hockey teams, figure skating team, and synchronized skating team. The rink is also used by intramural broomball teams and the Hill City Coyotes of the Lynchburg Youth Hockey Association.

With the renovation, Liberty now has one of the most impressive college hockey arenas in the nation at the ACHA or NCAA level. The facility — another highlight of Liberty’s $500 million campus rebuilding — was redesigned by the same firm (Lynchburg, Va.-based Glass & Associates Inc.) that built the original structure in 2005.

Liberty’s hockey program is now light-years ahead of where it started. During the first 20 years of its history, hockey at Liberty consisted of one team that commuted to rinks in Charlottesville and Roanoke for practices and “home” games, often played after midnight. The 2005-06 season proved to be a pivotal one, with a donation from Tim and Beverly LaHaye financing the construction of an on-campus arena, giving the Flames a home-ice advantage.

Since then, the popularity of hockey at Liberty has skyrocketed, and in celebration of the original building’s 10th anniversary, the renovation and expansion of the arena promises an even brighter future.

Kirk Handy, Division I men’s hockey coach and athletic director for Club Sports, announced the renovation plan at a press conference attended by players, skaters, and supporters last February as his team was preparing for the ACHA DI National Championships. “This is a really exciting day for Liberty. In 2006, never in a million years did we ever dream that we’d be here again looking to upgrade our facility. This is a gift from God … a huge blessing, and we’re very thankful for that.”

Besides the aesthetic upgrade, mirroring the nearby state-of-the-art LaHaye Fitness and Recreation Center, the $15 million renovation increased the size of the arena from approximately 60,000 to 90,000 square feet. It expanded locker rooms, and weight and training room space for hockey players and members of the figure skating and synchronized skating teams.

The expansion also increased the arena’s seating capacity from close to 3,000 to more than 4,000, including a reserved section with more than 600 chairback seats, 10 luxury suites — which sold out for the season before the home opener — and standing-room-only areas on the surrounding concourse.

Behind the press box is a high-tech studio where student technical directors use NewTek Tricasters to edit live-action footage from multiple cameras around the rink for Liberty Flames Sports Network (LFSN) webcasts. Suspended above the ice is a new four-sided video board, similar to the one used in the Vines Center and in NHL venues. Fans can now see instant replays, live interviews, and features produced by LFSN during the games.

The video board was also utilized during Liberty’s seventh annual PraiseFest on Dec. 13, introducing the 25 members of the Lady Flames’ women’s figure skating and synchronized skating teams to the audience before they took to the ice for the special Christmas recital. The surround seating turned the event from a stage routine to a 360-degree performance.

On Feb. 26-28, for the sixth time in seven years, the rink will host a United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA) Eastern Sectional Intercollegiate competition, the second of three held over a four-month stretch.

“The new facility is much more capable of holding events of this nature, and the collegiate teams coming in will really benefit from the improved amenities,” said first-year figure skating Head Coach Jamie Swyers, who skated for the Lady Flames during their inaugural season, 2010-11.

“There is a lot of anticipation for the U.S. Figure Skating Association to see the expansion of our rink as well as excitement from the 20-some visiting teams we have had come and participate in our competition in past years,” added Liberty synchronized skating Head Coach Tatiana Payne, who also serves as associate head coach of the figure skating team. “This is sure to be one of the largest and best competitions we have put on yet.”

It’s hard to match the atmosphere when the scoreboard and spotlights illuminate the rink before the start of a big game against an ACHA rival, or the excitement when the Division I Flames skate out of the tunnel as the starting lineup is introduced before the singing of the national anthem.

The ACHA featured the LaHaye Ice Center on its list of “Toughest Barns” to play in last season, and this year Liberty launched a Twitter campaign, #RockTheRink, encouraging fans to create an exciting, supportive atmosphere.

“Hockey’s huge at home in Canada, but coming to Virginia, it’s kind of a unique experience,” said former ACHA Division I goalie Blair Bennett, who has coached goalies on the DI women’s team for the past two seasons. “To play in front of 2,000 to 3,000 fans, in Virginia, of all places, is crazy because some of them have never seen hockey before. They just get so excited, and it really adds to the atmosphere of the arena.”

The home-ice advantage generated by a crowd of 4,000 helped the DI men’s team notch its first home win of the year on Nov. 14 at the inaugural hockey rendition of “Midnight Mayhem,” a late-night craze that has invigorated the fan bases of the men’s lacrosse and men’s volleyball Club Sports teams.

“That was probably the craziest crowd I’ve played in front of here,” Flames senior forward Danny Logan said after scoring the first goal and assisting the second in Liberty’s 3-2 victory over Delaware. “You could hear them in the tunnels. It was a huge adrenaline rush and boost, especially with it being a midnight game. Guys aren’t used to playing this late, but the fans fueled us the whole way through the game, so it was awesome.”

Another team that has thrived in the arena is Liberty’s ACHA Division I women’s hockey team. The Lady Flames finished 16-1 at home last season and captured the first national championship in program history last March in York, Pa., defeating top-ranked, defending national champion Miami of Ohio in the final. The Lady Flames christened the renovated space on opening night with the first Liberty victory in the arena, a 7-0 conquest of Vermont that ended in the early-morning hours of Oct. 24. The team, ranked No. 1 in the first two ACHA DI polls, followed up later that day with an 8-0 triumph.

Liberty’s ACHA Division II men’s team is coming off of back-to-back national championship tournament bids. This season, the Flames earned their first-ever No. 1 rankings in the first two Southeast Region polls after getting off to a 10-0 start.

All five hockey teams enjoy the atmosphere in the renovated arena and the support of their loyal fans.

“We love the environment,” said Liberty men’s Division I goalie Cary Byron. “It’s going to be loud, and we’re going to live up to the #RockTheRink hashtag that we advertise. There’s going to be lots of energy, and hopefully, the players feed off of it.”

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