Northern Michigan University’s newly renovated hockey facilities effectively combine visible reminders of the program’s storied history with modern amenities and next-generation technologies that rival the most elite Division I programs. The upgrades completed over the summer, primarily through alumni and donor support, will give the Wildcats a competitive advantage in attracting high-end recruits, which Head Coach Grant Potulny calls the lifeblood of college athletics. They will also enhance the culture of the program while facilitating increased camaraderie among its student-athletes.
“I would put our new facilities up against any in college hockey,” Potulny added. “I’ve always felt that players decide where to go based on two factors: one is that it’s a school they’ve always wanted to attend, maybe because a family member went or it’s close to home; the second is the coaching staff. For us to have a chance at being that second reason, we have to get them to Northern.
"Once they see the facilities, they’re going to want to come and take a look, which gives us a chance to sell ourselves, then our program. And now I can say it’s fortunate for us that student athletes equate the professionalism of the program with what the locker room looks like. This allows us to get in the recruiting mix with just about any program in our state or nation. Even the project renderings got people excited. When you actually walk in, it blows your hair back.”
Proof of that impact was highly evident when teammates took their first tour of the new Walt Kyle Locker Room, named in honor of the former team captain and head coach at the request of the project’s lead donor. They first walked through a corridor that pays homage to the program’s history. The walls are adorned with murals, photos and plaques depicting the 1991 National Championship team, Wildcat All-Americans, players who advanced to NHL rosters, and team captains throughout the years. There is also an impressive metal cutout of the Upper Peninsula to instill pride in place.
As they entered the locker room, initial jaw-dropping reactions quickly gave way to big smiles, high-fives and exuberant expressions of reverence as they more closely surveyed their new surroundings. The previous space had been completely demolished and transformed into an oval topped by an illuminated Wildcat logo on the cherry wood panel ceiling. Complementary cherry builtin lockers feature backlit player nameplates above each hanging jersey, with two shelves above for skates, helmets and pads and a drawer below. LED lighting rims the ceiling and a green-hued glow emanates from the lockers at floor level. An exciting addition is the John and Melissa Besse Foundation Performance Center, a modern hydrotherapy hub with hot and cold plunge pools to accelerate physical recovery for student-athletes.
"The foundation was established to give back and support the local communities where John and Melissa lived and worked,” said Cain Besse '11 BS, Besse Foundation trustee.
“We are excited to help the student-athletes at NMU by funding the capital improvements needed to take the hockey team's recovery and performance to the next level. Coach Potulny and his team have a vision to advance NMU hockey. It's very exciting to be part of the process of developing a winning program."
The facility also includes The Rose Tourville Team Center, named in honor of a longtime Wildcat hockey fan. It features couches, TVs, a kitchen and team meeting area.
“I was blown away by all this; it was like waking up on Christmas morning for us,” said Tanner Vescio, a team captain and pre-business major from Blaine, Minn. “We always want to be here; no one wants to leave. There was a different energy going into the year because we were all excited for this. Walking through the halls now and seeing the history of the program, I feel pretty honored to put on this jersey and want to play every game harder. We had a meeting last year with some of the donors before construction began. To shake their hands and realize how important it is for them as well was awesome. We’re very thankful.”
Donors had an opportunity to tour the completed project after a dedication dinner Oct. 20. The following night, NMU Sports Hall of Fame inductee Walt Kyle '81 BS was recognized on the ice before the Wildcats’ 9-1 victory over the University of Alaska -Anchorage. He said he is very honored to serve as the namesake for the new locker room because he is proud to be an NMU alumnus, former player and the second head coach in the program’s history. He succeeded current athletic director Rick Comley '73 MAE.
“Anything that can be done to make the athletes’ experience better and help the coaching staff recruit high-end athletes is important,” Kyle said. “It shows the university’s commitment to the program that they were able to find donors to make this happen. And the program history on the walls shows the players that they are part of something bigger than themselves.
"It’s about excellence on the ice and in the classroom, and by how they carry themselves in the community. Those are expectations Rick immediately established back in 1976 and the program achieved success. Current players have a great opportunity to carry thats success forward.”
Comley, whose name graces the Berry Events Center rink, said the new and improved facilities are a major step forward in the highly competitive world of college hockey:
“NMU now is in the upper echelons of all the best programs. The ties with the past and the hope of the present and future are displayed so vividly. The players of today and those in the future know how special their new home is and this reaffi rms everyone's commitment to becoming and staying one of the top programs in the country.”
Three alumni were heavily involved in the renovation: Brandon Sager ’95 AS, ’96 BS was NMU project manager, Mike Forester '09 BFA did the design of the wall graphics and Brian Anderson ’95 BS was Cross General Contracting project manager.