Harry W. Lawson Ice Arena and Gabel Natatorium is a 3,667-seat multi-purpose arena, and adjacent natatorium in Kalamazoo, Michigan, located on the far Southwest corner of Western Michigan University's main campus. The arena is a single-level, horseshoe-style arena with a concourse at the top. It is home to the Western Michigan Broncos men's ice hockey team, and the synchronized skating club team. The arena is named after Harry W. Lawson, the founder of the hockey program at Western Michigan University. The Gabel Natatorium contains an olympic size swimming pool, and is home to the WMU Swimming and Diving Club team.
From 1992 to 1994, while University Arena was being renovated, the basketball teams also called Lawson home.
With men's ice hockey slated to become a varsity sport at Western in 1973, the university needed to provide a suitable arena for the team. Prior to the arena and varsity status, the team would play their club games at an outdoor ice rink in Kalamazoo near the Crosstown Parkway. On November 15, 1974, Lawson Ice Arena opened its doors for the first time as the Broncos faced off against the Thunderbirds of Algoma University. The arena was named after Harry W. Lawson, a professor at Western Michigan who organized and founded the club hockey team in 1956, which eventually became the school's varsity team.
With the men's hockey team flourishing in the 1980s and early 1990s, the university began with a series of renovations. The first was a $1 million series of upgrades during summer 1993, when a new floor, boards and glass, and cooling system were installed in the arena. This was followed by a $250,000 renovation in 1997, when chairback seating was added on the south side of the arena, club-style seating on the southwest corner of the arena above the ice resurfacer tunnel, and vinyl bleachers were installed. In 1998, the arena received a new $1 million metal roof, to replace the old, wooden roof. The next upgrade in 2006 was priced at $2.2 million, when both locker rooms were renovated, athletic training rooms were upgraded, and coach's quarters were added along with a film/meeting room. With the resurgence of the program around 2010, the newest upgrade was in 2013 with a new scoreboard at center ice along with three video boards placed around the arena. The upgrades were financed by an anonymous donor, who gave the university $1 million for video board upgrades in Lawson and University Arenas.
In summer 2014, a city water main break flooded the basement with 6–8 feet of water, shutting down the arena for a couple weeks while repairs were made. Light damage was reported to the natatorium filtration system, along with the ice cooling system. Safety systems prevented further damage from occurring.
The arena's record attendance was set on Halloween (October 31), 1987, when a standing-room crowd of 5,168 watched the Broncos take on then CCHA rival, Michigan State.
In 2013, with rumors of a new ice arena swirling, Western Michigan athletic director Kathy Beauregard stated that Lawson will be the home of the Bronco's hockey team for the foreseeable future. She did not deny that renderings and feasibility studies were conducted, due to Lawson's age, and lack of fan amenities. Possible locations of a new arena could include downtown Kalamazoo (would be a multi-purpose facility), directly south of the current arena, or to the southeast corner of Stadium and Howard streets. But there is currently no plan to build a new arena. Lawson Ice Arena is currently the oldest arena in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and the second smallest in capacity next to the Goggin Ice Center (3,200) in Oxford, Ohio.
The men's hockey team has called Lawson home since its opening in 1974, and most of the facility upgrades have revolved around the hockey team. Almost all of the team's athletic and team training facilities are located within the arena. The arena is noted as one of the toughest to play within the NCHC, mainly due to the old-style design, and the Lawson Lunatics.
The official student section for the hockey team is known as the Lawson Lunatics. The whole east side of the arena is reserved for the student section, which normally brings 1,400 students to each game. The students were ranked as the #1 student section in college hockey, and were asked by the university in 2013 to tone down the chants due to numerous complaints. The students are one of the main reasons that many players in the NCHC consider Lawson the toughest arena to play in.
From 1992 to 1994, the Broncos' men's and women's basketball teams moved to Lawson while the University Arena was reconfigured and renovated. The teams also played at arenas in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.
The WMU synchronized skating team called Lawson home from 1999 to 2004. In 2004, the team's varsity status was revoked due to financial issues. As a result of the loss of varsity status, the team claimed club status, but still calls Lawson home.
Besides hockey, skating, and basketball, Lawson has hosted other events such as ice shows, professional boxing matches, and concerts. The arena also hosts travel and high school hockey games, and is used by the university for club and intramural hockey as well.
Adjacent to the Lawson Ice Arena is the Gabel natatorium, which contains an olympic sized swimming pool, and is home to the WMU club swimming and diving team. The natatorium is also used for open lap swim, swimming classes, and pool rental.