October 31, 2013 Updated: October 31, 2013 at 9:22 pm
The fond memories will fade to the background once Colorado College's Joe Bonnett steps off the bus at Western Michigan.
The longtime Tigers hockey assistant will be all business when he returns to Kalamazoo, Mich., as an opposing coach for the first time in about 14 years when CC takes on the Broncos (1-2-1) this Friday and Saturday.
The National Collegiate Hockey Conference games are the league openers for Western Michigan, where Bonnett, 43, was a forward from 1989-93 and earned an education degree.
The Michigan native went into teaching and coached the Kalamazoo K-Wings of the junior North American Hockey League before serving as an assistant at Miami for five seasons. He joined Colorado College (1-3, 1-1 NCHC) in 2000.
"I spent a lot of my early coaching life in the Kalamazoo area," he said. "It is a really special place for me."
Bonnett has been back since. He was a finalist for the head coach job a few years ago. He caught up with friends this summer at an alumni golf weekend.
"It's nice to look at all the new buildings on campus and see familiar faces," he said.
He also recalled one of his favorite times under then-coach Bill Wilkinson, who will be at the games this weekend. On snow days, which were often in that region, Wilkinson would send the Broncos out to shovel driveways in the community.
"We'd help some folks out, throw snowballs at each other and have a lot of fun," he said. "It was a great way to break up the monotony of a long season."
His memories include playing at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena and Lawson Arena, known as one of the loudest places to play college hockey. It is a popular scene judging from the 4,000 lined up for the 1,400 student seats in the 3,667-seat arena for the WMU home opener against Notre Dame. The student section's nickname of the Lawson Lunatics is well deserved.
"It has a low ceiling and the kids bring in cowbells and plastic things to bang on the metal bleachers," Bonnett said. "It's pretty intense. It is a great place to play."
It's an environment Broncos coach Andy Murray hopes is an advantage.
"One thing I am looking forward to with this new league is to see the looks on our opponent's faces when they first see the Lawson Lunatics," he said. "The energy we have in our building is very special."
"I wouldn't want to sit in that penalty box," Broncos senior defenseman Dennis Brown said. "There are a lot of things said; cheers if you will. They will let them know where they're at. They're great fans."
Tigers junior Charlie Taft is looking forward to the experience.
"Playing in front of big crowds and loud fans is fun," he said. "It fuels the fire."
Know Your Foe
Western Michigan Broncos
Location: Kalamazoo, Mich.
Colors: Brown and Gold
Mascot: Buster Bronco
First hockey season: 1973-74
Series: CC leads 2-0 all-time
Last meeting: CC won 8-4, 3-1, on Dec. 20-21, 2002, in Colorado Springs
Facility: Lawson Arena (capacity 3,667), NHL sheet (85 by 200 feet), opened 1974
Some famous alumni: actors Tim Allen and Bruce Campbell; Detroit Tigers president, CEO and general manager Dave Dombrowski; actress Loretta Long (Susan Robinson on Sesame Street); Blackhawks wing Jamal Myers; ESPN personality John Saunders; NHL general manager Neil Smith (first WMU draft pick); and singer Luther Vandross.
The skinny: The Broncos program underwent a revival when former coach Jeff Blashill took a team that won eight games in 2009-10 to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association Tournament championship game the next season. Hiring former NHL coach Andy Murray represented a serious commitment to the program by the athletic department, which made the school attractive to the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
Quotable: "Being a freshman under coach Blashill and being under those seniors and the leadership they showed was a big step forward for this program," senior defenseman Dennis Brown said. "Taking in what coach Blashill taught us and now coach Murray, our group of seniors has the leadership it takes to get the job done."