COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- There were no fans in World Arena this week when UND took on Colorado College.
But there was a familiar face in the front row.
Colorado College placed, along the glass, a cardboard cutout of Grand Forks-based architect Lonnie Laffen, who died of a heart attack last month at the age of 62.
It was a testament to the wide-ranging impact Laffen had in the college hockey world, and a fitting tribute for a series that featured his favorite team, UND, and another one he grew to love, Colorado College.
Laffen and his firm, JLG Architects, became the go-to experts for college hockey programs wishing to build a new arena or renovate their current one.
JLG was especially prominent in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Besides doing work with Ralph Engelstad Arena, it renovated Denver's locker room, renovated St. Cloud State's Herb Brooks National Hockey Center and is in the process of building Colorado College's Ed Robson Arena, which is scheduled to open next season.
"Outside maybe those who work in the conference office, nobody loved the NCHC more than Lonnie," NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton said. "His mind was always on college hockey and the greater good of college hockey. He supported College Hockey Inc. His business had a lot of projects across the country. He really enjoyed college hockey and he grew to have a pretty deep love of the NCHC. His heart and soul was always with the University of North Dakota."
How it started
After the formation of JLG, one of the partners had everyone read the book 'Good to Great' by Jim Collins.
Laffen said the takeaway from the book was to find something in which you can be the best in the world.
"Nobody is going to believe that the best in the world can come from Grand Forks," Laffen told the Herald this summer. "But there is one thing people will believe you can be great at from Grand Forks, and that's hockey."
JLG made that a priority, starting locally and regionally. Laffen said the renovation project at Denver's Magness Arena four years ago launched the firm into a nationally recognized organization.
They now have offices in Grand Forks, Minneapolis and Boston.
They've done work with programs across the country, including Sacred Heart, Maine, Bowling Green, Omaha, Niagara and UConn as well as non Division-I programs like Navy, Iowa and Indiana. They've worked with professional hockey teams like the Henderson Silver Knights in the American Hockey League and junior hockey programs in Des Moines, Sioux Falls, Dubuque, Iowa, Wausau, Wis., Rapid City, S.D., and Thief River Falls.
They've also worked with high school and community rinks across the Midwest.
"We started doing small projects in Warroad and Roseau," Laffen said. "Those are hockey towns that everybody knows. Word got out that we do ice hockey."
Fenton said Laffen became an indispensable resource for college hockey programs.
"I would bet he had all eight of our head coaches' cell phone numbers in his phone," Fenton said. "If they needed advice on a project, locker room, a brand-new facility or a remodel, Lonnie was the go-to guy.
"He, his name and his firm have become one of the go-to places for smaller to mid-sized arenas and projects. JLG Architects is in this little gem of a city, Grand Forks, North Dakota, that many people may not know about. But Lonnie's passion for the game, love for college hockey and wanting to develop partnerships allowed him to expand well outside of Grand Forks and well outside the NCHC footprint."
Building the sport nationwide
Mike Snee, the director of College Hockey Inc., said Laffen played a prominent role in helping programs get started.
When one program expressed interest, Laffen flew to their campus and showed school leadership renderings of what they could do for a venue. The athletic director later told Snee that when Laffen showed him the renderings of the facility, it helped generate more interest that may someday result in another Division-I hockey program.
"He did so much for nothing," Snee said. "He'd put together designs, go meet with people, look at a site and he helped us sell the idea of college hockey by showing people how cool a facility could look."
In addition to that, Laffen asked Snee about different ways he could help their mission financially. That resulted in a post-graduate scholarship, which goes to a Division-I or Division-III men's or women's player who has helped build interest in college hockey.
"Not many people come to you and say, 'Can we help fund what you do?'" Snee said. "He did that. It was a pretty special moment.
"He was so sincere in his passion for UND, but I think he just loved college hockey and loved everything about it. Now that he's building so many buildings, I think he became personally attached to a lot of programs."
During the NCHC Pod in December, Fenton said he got a text from Laffen almost every day. After each game, Laffen would change his sweatshirt to whatever team won the most recent game.
"One day it would be a North Dakota shirt, the next day an Omaha shirt, then a Denver shirt. . . he just loved the NCHC so much. Obviously, he and his company were great supporters of the conference," Fenton said. "He really, really loved college hockey. He was a special guy."
Laffen and his wife, Pam, were frequent guests at college hockey's annual meetings in Florida, where they would connect with coaches and athletic directors across the country.
"He always thought globally about college hockey and how he could help, and he was certainly helping," Fenton said.
Every time Fenton goes on the road, he makes it a point to find the best local breakfast place in town.
Laffen introduced Fenton to Darcy's Cafe in Grand Forks. They would always meet there when Fenton made trips to town, sit in the first booth on the right side and go through projects that JLG was working on.
"He was a brilliant person," Fenton said. "His outlook on life was really positive. It's hard to do that as a person today with some of the challenges we live in. Lonnie always had a smile on his face and an approach to life with the right outlook. I'll miss that a great deal. I'm going to miss going to Darcy's with him, for sure."