Revamped locker rooms and a new street-level hospitality area on the west side of the building highlight the summer renovations undertaken at Van Andel Arena.
Story by Mark Newman / Photo by Sam Iannamico
Any homeowner or business owner knows that there comes a time when a structure could use a little remodeling.
As the home of professional hockey since the 1996-97 season, Van Andel Arena has served the Grand Rapids Griffins well, but it was becoming apparent that the time had finally come to do some major renovations inside the bowels of the building – specifically, the locker rooms for both the home and visiting teams.
When the puck dropped for the 24th season of Griffins hockey, players for the Detroit Red Wings’ AHL affiliate were treated to a new look for their off-ice home – the first major renovation since the building opened nearly a quarter of a century ago.
“This was a massive undertaking and should prove to be a game-changer for the organization,” said Griffins president Tim Gortsema, who has been a member of the Griffins’ staff from the very beginning of the franchise.
“When we opened the arena in 1996, we felt like we had one of the premier locker rooms in the league. To go two decades without any major improvements, it was becoming increasingly clear that the time had come for a major investment.”
The renovations were approved by the Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention/Arena Authority (CAA), the public entity that owns the Van Andel Arena and DeVos Place – both of which are operated by SMG, the worldwide venue management team that has been in charge since the buildings first opened.
Thanks to the success of the arena and convention center, the CAA has a sizable budget surplus in its unrestricted fund to pay for building repairs and upgrades, meaning there was no cost to taxpayers for the renovations which were expected to top $2 million.
Talks about what might or might not be included in this renovation began in the spring of 2018.
The Griffins and Red Wings participated in the various SMG discussions with the project’s general contractor, Pinnacle Construction, and the architect, Ghafari. Numerous meetings were held to hash out the details of the renovation project that began producing preliminary drawings in the fall of 2018.
“We had significant input into the process,” Gortsema said. “To his credit, Rich MacKeigan (regional general manager of SMG) was very inclusive in terms of involving both the Griffins and Red Wings organizations in order to survey our interests and desires for the renovation.”
Gortsema said it was clear from early in the process that the renovations would be centered on the locker room areas.
“There was a general feeling that the entire west side of the arena, including the locker rooms, needed to be refreshed, and so the various parties began the process of looking at options to accomplish what everyone agreed was probably overdue.”
The most ambitious and most expensive concept would have expanded the west-side portion of the building, encroaching onto the exterior sidewalk. “The budget and scope of the concept were deemed to be greater than it probably needed to be,” he said.
In the end, it was determined that the best course of action was to work within the existing walls. “You can’t make the arena any bigger, so our focus became how to reconfigure the available space and find creative ways to add more space wherever it was needed.”
For the sake of getting the most proverbial bang for the buck, it was determined that the best course of action was to demolish the interior as much as possible, allowing the project to start from scratch.
“From the team’s perspective, if we were renovating the space, we felt it was important to upgrade the aesthetics of our locker rooms,” he said. “We didn’t want just a new coat of paint on the same cinderblock wall. We wanted to change the whole look of the entire space.”
As a result, the entire locker room area was gutted. “The only thing that remained was the structural cinderblock walls – no flooring, no ceiling,” Gortsema said. “It was felt that a white-box approach would allow us the design flexibility to achieve the desired improvements.”
Gortsema said the Griffins organization understood that not all of its needs and wants would be financed by the CAA budget and there would be some team-funded items that would fall outside the city’s mandate.
“CAA and SMG did most of the heavy financial lifting of the project,” he said. “The lion’s share of the renovation was covered by their capital improvement budget, but there were some items that our organization believed were necessary and the financial responsibility of those became team-funded.”
Demolition activities began in early June. “Time is a finite commodity, so it was apparent that all of the parties would be working within a tight window of time due to the constraints of the summer offseason,” Gortsema said. “Everyone was cautiously optimistic that most of the work could be completed in time for the opening of the season.”
Even so, completion dates were prioritized for the various phases of the project. By late summer, it was evident that workers were racing against the clock. The ambitious nature of the project seemingly tested the concept of fast-track construction.
Gortsema looked at the situation as “short-term pain for long-term gain.” He contends minor inconveniences created by a summer-long construction schedule should ultimately yield benefits for both the arena as well as the Griffins organization.
The decision to go the route of demolition allowed the project to redraw boundaries within the existing space. The arena, for example, was able to take advantage of space that was largely underutilized in the mode of the former Grand Rapids Rampage arena football team offices.
The arena also agreed to shrink the space of one VIP dressing room to provide for additional space to satisfy one of the biggest needs from the Griffins’ perspective, which was a private office for the head coach.
When the Griffins began play in the arena back in 1996, the team had a head coach and one assistant. In recent years, the coaching staff has tripled in size, which has become especially problematic in terms of guaranteeing privacy while providing a place that could accommodate all the assistants.
“There are times when the head coach wants to have a confidential discussion with a player but has been unable to keep it as a private matter because he didn’t have his own space,” Gortsema said. “We needed a separate space for the head coach.”
In reality, evidence of the complete facelift starts at the primary entrance to the locker room. “The old 7-foot metal doors have been replaced by nicer 9-foot doors with new lighting to provide a bigger, grander entrance,” he said.
But the renovation, of course, didn’t stop there. “Most of the cinderblock inside the locker area has been covered by painted drywall for a classier look,” Gortsema said. “We felt it was important to have that ‘wow’ factor to show the scope of the renovation.”
Other improvements included:
• All of the locker room space was redesigned, not only to provide for a couple of extra stalls for the players but also to offer bigger and wider stalls at the ends for the goalies and their oversized equipment;
• A large, backlit primary Griffins logo has been installed in the ceiling of the locker room, replacing the team’s shield logo that was formerly centered in the locker room carpet;
• League standings that were manually tracked on a whiteboard inside the locker room will now be visible (with other statistics) on electronic screens near the entrance area;
• New cabinets have been installed in the training room, which now has a second cold tub, a new four-person hot tub and a new ice machine, along with new office furniture;
• New fixtures and toilets were installed in the bathroom and shower areas;
• New exercise equipment and technology has been installed in an expanded weight room to meet the increased emphasis that the Red Wings organization is placing on off-ice training in regard to strength and conditioning;
• There’s a new dry change area for the players with customized locks for each locker.
The team store, The Zone, will operate out of a smaller but more efficient space to nearly double the amount of space available to the weight room. It also allows room for a new VIP area that will occupy the space formerly utilized as offices for the Rampage. That new high-end, pre-event reception area offers the potential for outdoor seating in the future.
“On hockey game days, the space can be used for hospitality and entertainment activities at our discretion,” Gortsema said. “Post-game it will likely function as a gathering place for players’ families and significant others.”
In addition to the renovation of the Griffins’ locker room, the entire visiting team locker room area is being smartly redesigned for a more sensible, professional appearance.
Prior to the renovation, AHL teams previously occupied two different adjoining rooms, making it difficult for a head coach to address his entire team in one space without setting up folding chairs to accommodate all of the players.
“Our visiting team locker space has always been a bit disjointed,” he said. “We felt that it didn’t reflect well upon the organization, the arena or the city to have the sort of setup that might have given the appearance of putting the visiting team at a competitive disadvantage, even though that was never the intention.”
Gortsema believes all of the improvements – including new dressing rooms for all the world-class performers whose tours come through Grand Rapids – will elevate the perception of Van Andel Arena as a premier sporting facility. “I think the overall improvements will ultimately pay dividends for the arena and city in terms of attracting regional and national tournaments to the city,” he said.
And the improvements will continue. Among the items slated for consideration is replacing the arena’s center ice scoreboard for an estimated $2 million, the ice plant refrigeration system for an estimated $1 million, and a whole new roof for the arena.
“There will be more to come,” Gortsema said.