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Vote keeps UML hockey

By From the Lowell Sun

By Matt Murphy

Tune up the Zambonis. UMass Lowell hockey is here to stay.

With the threat of losing its nationally known Division I hockey program behind them, UMass Lowell officials will now turn their attention to a new goal -- filling the seats at Tsongas Arena.

The UMass Board of Trustees voted unanimously yesterday in Amherst to allow UMass Lowell to keep its Division I Hockey East team, encouraged by a new one-year lease signed between the city and the Tsongas Arena.

"I'm excited about the future of UMass Lowell hockey. Coach Blaise MacDonald, the assistant coaches and the players should feel great," said Matt Carlin, a trustee and chairman of the athletic subcommittee.

The university recently renegotiated the terms of its lease at the Tsongas Arena, removing some of the financial obstacles trustees viewed as an impediment to the success of the program.

With the blessing of the trustees, the onus of drumming up enthusiasm for the team on campus and putting a winning product on the ice shifts to the university, and incoming Chancellor Marty Meehan.

Meehan said he has a number of ideas to revitalize the image of the River Hawks and boost ticket sales, including the creation of a VIP lounge at Tsongas Arena and an aggressive marketing campaign.

The university plans to kick off a season-ticket sales drive, headed by All Sports Promotions President Mike Kuenzler, on July 2.

Meehan said UMass Lowell will offer 340 "club seat" packages at $249 that will include center-ice seats, advance notice and ticket opportunities for other Tsongas Arena events, and access to the new Talon Club room.

The Talon Club will feature a cash bar and buffet.

Club-seat owners will also get a VIP parking pass for every two seats purchased, and dinner with Meehan at the Allen House.

Cheaper season-ticket packages will also be offered. Regular season tickets will sell for $149. The $199 "PLUS" package will include ticket opportunities for other Tsongas Arena events.

"Ultimately, the future of Hockey East (in Lowell) will depend on the students, faculty, employees and the community at large," said Meehan, who starts as chancellor on July 2. "But we're pleased with the vote of the trustees and the efforts of the city officials, Sen. (Steven) Panagiotakos and the delegation."

Carlin and other trustees praised both city and university officials for coming together on a tight deadline to reach a compromise that could allow for UMass Lowell hockey to thrive.

Lowell's legislative delegation also weighed in on the deal.

"This is about taking the necessary steps to ensure the hockey program at UMass Lowell is something that we can all be proud of and the community of Lowell can be proud of," Carlin said.

The new lease eliminates the university's annual $50,000 payment to the arena. UMass Lowell also stands to receive 100 percent of revenue from concession sales during home games, and 50 percent of advertising on the marquee outside the arena.

The new deal was made possible, in part, by City Manager Bernie Lynch successfully renegotiating the terms of the lease with the Lowell Devils, requiring the professional team, an American Hockey League affiliate, to pay more in rent to the arena next year.

"The trustees' original charge was to not maintain the status quo and to put us in a position to achieve excellence," said Dana Skinner, UMass Lowell athletic director. "We certainly have a better opportunity to advance the program than when we started this process. Now we have to make sure we sustain interest in hockey."

Carlin insisted that the trustees had confidence in the leadership at UMass Lowell, and said this is not just a one-year reprieve.

He said the new lease does not mean UMass Lowell hockey will have to turn its attendance figures and bottom line around in one year, or risk losing the team again.