By Mike McMahon
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — Anyone who hasn’t been on Merrimack’s campus since last hockey season will barely recognize the place.
A major construction project that kicked off last September was officially dedicated and opened at a ceremony Thursday night.
In just one year, the college built an entire new village of townhouse-style dorms, a new ice rink adjacent to Lawler Arena, a new sports medicine facility, a new strength and conditioning center and a new lobby which includes new luxury boxes inside Merrimack’s home rink.
The gym floor inside Hammel Court was also replaced, opening with a volleyball match last Tuesday.
In all, the footprint of Merrimack’s athletic complex doubled in size.
”It’s amazing,” said senior volleyball player Jackie Jones. “To be the first team to use the new floor was pretty special. It looks great. Everything looks great.”
The Islander Hockey Club, an organization that sponsors teams from youth level through high-level juniors in the United States Premiere Hockey League, has a long-term agreement with Merrimack to use its facilities as its home rink. The new second ice sheet at the college bears the Islanders’ logo at center ice.
Last year Richard Gallant, president of the Islanders, and his wife, Susanna, donated $2 million dollars to the college, one of the largest gifts the college has ever received.
If you’re a hockey parent taking your kids to 5 a.m. Saturday games or just a Merrimack fan in need of a caffeine fix, you’ll likely love the addition of the Dunkin’ Donuts, which is housed inside Merrimack’s new bookstore in the lobby of arena.
The college’s enrollment — roughly 2,500 students when classes began a few weeks ago — is an all-time high and President Christopher Hopey has his sights set on eventually nearing 3,000 total students. Part of that strategic plan includes the new dorms as well as the expanded athletic facilities.
At the opening ceremony, approximately 2,500 students, alumni and supporters crammed the college’s campus center parking lot for celebration that included a live band a fireworks display.
“The job of any college president is to leave the school better than better than when we inherited it,” Hopey said. “That’s my job here now and it will be the job for whoever comes after me.
“When I first got here, I saw it had all the ingredients to be great. The stuff we’ve done here was a natural thing to do. It takes hundreds of people to make this happen and it was really a great team effort between my administration and the board of trustees and the employees, everyone here.”
In 2007, the graduating class consisted of 289 students. This fall’s freshman class is 850.
It’s clear that athletics plays a vital role in the plan for growth.
The athletic department is seriously considering a move to Division 1 for all of its athletics, including basketball and football.
“Athletics is important for three reasons,” Hopey said. “Obviously for pride, then there’s building within the community and finally enrollment. Athletics plays a big role in driving that and Merrimack needs all three of those things to being doing well.”
There is more to be done.
“We’re not ready to announce anything but there is a phase two,” Hopey said. “Stay tuned, it’s even bigger than this.”