J. Thom Lawler Arena
Thanks to the efforts of three Merrimack alumni- John Donovan 78, Ron Connors 78, and Ken Duane 80 – the Merrimack College hockey rink is now called the J. Thom Lawler Arena. The Merrimack alumni issued a challenge in September, 2001 and proudly announced at the end of the 2002-2003 season that the challenge was a success and raised a sum of $1.2 million to name the rink after their former coach. The rink dedication took place on October 25, 2003 with a special ceremony on the night of the Warriors home game against Hockey East rival Providence College. The entire building, which also houses the gymnasium, weight room, locker rooms and athletic department offices, remains as the S. Peter Volpe Athletic Center.
Thanking all those who made the challenge a success, Donovan said, “There will not be a more poignant day in the history of Merrimack College hockey than the opening night of the 2003-2004 season in the J. Thom Lawler Arena. Thom gave his time, energy and life to Merrimack hockey. He was a real champion to his family, players, staff and friends of Merrimack hockey and now his name will live on forever.”
Lawler, a Merrimack Hall of Fame member, coached the Warriors for 13 seasons from the 1965-1978, until his sudden death at the age of 44. Lawler compiled a 218-138-10 record at Merrimack. Lawlers .609 winning percentage remains the best in the history of Merrimack hockey. Lawler coached the Warriors to the programs only National Championship in 1978 and also guided them to three championships in the prestigious ECAC while making 11 playoff appearances. Lawler also spent nine years as Athletic Director. Commenting at the time of the National Championship, Lawler noted, “Ive been in sports since 1956 and Ive had some great moments, but this is really something special. Winning the ECAC titles was great, but national competition like this is a little bit different,” (Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, 6/12/78).
Lawlers teams made the playoffs in all but one year while he was at the helm, and besides winning the ECAC titles, his team was runner-up four times. In what is a perhaps true sign of Lawlers appeal, the year after the Warriors captured the National Championship, a total of 111 players attended tryouts on the North Andover campus.
Lawler died of a heart attack at the age of 44 on Sunday June 11, 1978, only months after leading the Warriors to their only National Title. Lawlers son, Thom, was a freshman on that team and went on to become Captain in the 1980-81 season. Then vice-president of development Bob Hatem had this to say about Coach Lawler, “Thom Lawler did something with the small school athletic program which brought us national attention. I think the man truly represented what sports are supposed to do.” Mike Reynolds, a player under Lawler added, “He helped me as a hockey player and as a person. I put 100 percent because I loved the man. He was great.”
Two of his peers, Brendan Sheehy, an assistant under Lawler for five years, and Jim Logue, who worked at the time with the goaltenders, both commented on Lawler, referencing his work ethic and personality. “He wasnt outwardly emotional. He kept a lot inside him. Yet he was a very intense person. The hockey team was his life. He was very jubilant when they won and he took the losses very hard, although he wouldnt blame them on anyone but himself.” Logue noted Lawlers duties as Athletic Director, “Not many people realize what Thom had to do as A.D. He was a tremendous Athletic Director. He was just as worried about intramural hockey and basketball as much as he was worried about how lacrosse and soccer went,” (Lawrence Eagle Tribune, 6/12/78).
Lawler, who was a veteran of the Korean War, was a native of Rome, N.Y. and a 1960 graduate of St. Lawrence University. At St. Lawrence he participated in two national championship games as a member of the hockey team and was named MVP of the baseball team. After his college graduation, Lawler coached football, baseball, and basketball at Madrid-Waddington Central school then spent four years at Canton Central (N.Y.) before arriving at Merrimack in 1965. While at Canton, his baseball and hockey teams were involved in championship play for three years in the 1960s. (Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, 12/17/78).
October 25th was a special night that will not soon be forgotten. Donovan and Connors were on the ice along with Lawler family members prior to the game for a ceremonial puck drop. Between periods, they were joined on the ice by Merrimack president Richard J. Santagati and 21 members of the 1978 National Championship Team. “All of us players here tonight and the fans are better off for knowing him,” stated Donovan. “We all remember Thom as a shining example of family, teamwork, unselfishness, and commitment.” By this dedication of the rink, Lawlers memory will be forever etched in the history of not only Merrimack hockey, but the entire Merrimack campus.