The LancerLot was originally built in 1984 by Henry Brabham with its main purpose being to house the professional Virginia Lancers ice hockey team.
Now in 2018, some 34 years later, construction is once again under way as the LancerLot Sports Complex has been sold and is undergoing major renovations to once again become home to ice hockey in the Roanoke Valley.
According to The Vinton Messenger archives, “In July 1984, construction began on Henry Brabham’s dream of a home for his Virginia Lancers professional ice hockey team as the footers were dug for the LancerLot. Workmen began setting steel in August. A back-breaking construction schedule saw the huge building complete in about six months.”
By 1986, the facility evolved into Brabham’s version of a complete sports center— 115,000 square feet on three floors open seven days a week and hosting such diverse activities as ice hockey, state gymnastics and swim meets, indoor soccer, and religious conventions.
The building was the only one of its kind in western Virginia at the time.
The primary tenant of the facility was originally the Virginia Lancers of the Atlantic Coast Hockey League. Plans also included a restaurant, swimming pool, and health club. Brabham’s goal was to attract 800 members to the health club, which would feature weight-lifting equipment, the pool, aerobics, and five handball/racquetball courts.
In addition to the Lancers, teams from Virginia Tech, Roanoke College, and Liberty University used the arena for games, along with local youth and adult hockey teams. It was Brabham’s expectation that more than 1,000 young valley residents would participate in indoor soccer, whose season would run simultaneously with the hockey season. Crews would cover the morning Lancer practice ice with grass for evening soccer.
His plans also included using the 25-meter by 25-yard L-shaped pool for training valley swimmers and using the one and three-meter diving boards to produce some Olympic divers.
“The talent is here in swimming and diving and now we will have the facility for training them,” said Brabham.
There would be parking for 800 cars at no charge.
The complex was tentatively named Lancer Lot. When some referred to the facility as the third civic center in the valley (Salem and Roanoke were the others) Brabham “was adamant in his description of the LancerLot. Eyes flashing, he said, “It’s not the Vinton Civic Center. It’s the LancerLot Sports Complex. That’s been a very sore subject with me. The banks called it the third civic center. If you’ll pardon my expression, I didn’t get one damn dime of government money to build here— didn’t’ask for it.”
The cost set for the building and equipment in 1984 was $2.7 million, significantly higher than first thought and then increased to $3.2 million.
Brabham believed that the investment would be recouped fairly quickly as it was booked from opening day in November through April 30, 1985, with no open nights before the first game was played.
The LancerLot was designed to hold 3,000 people for hockey with form-fitted seats. Brabham said he settled on the 3,000 seats because “it’s all I have a need for and besides, they cost $100 each.”
When the top brass of the Atlantic Coast Hockey League gathered for a pre-season meeting in Vinton in the summer of 1984, they seemed to be quite impressed with the facility. At that time work on the building was somewhat behind due to periods of heavy rain during the summer, but the owners were heartened to see that steel had been erected for one entire end of the complex.
Brabham hoped for completion by mid-November 1984, so the Lancers could play their first game of the season there on November 22. Their first seven games that year were on the road. He did not expect the remainder of the building to be complete until early January 1985.
“We have to finish this end first,” he said. “It will be like two different buildings.”
Concrete bleachers had been installed in October, with the $100 seats to arrive soon after. He expected the concrete floor to be poured in late October by a firm from Minnesota. The plumbing in the floor was already in place waiting for the freon pipes to be installed and inspected. The concrete would need to set for a month before being used.
In October 1984, he wasn’t sure if hockey would be the first event featured. He considered laying out the Astroturf and having an indoor soccer game first.
As the deadline for completion of the ice rink neared, Brabham could be found “in motion shouting orders.”
According to a Vinton Messenger article, “Men were at work in all corners of the arena, perhaps 30 of them trying to finish the hockey rink before Thanksgiving Day’s opening game against Carolina. Workmen were rushing to complete bathrooms, concession stands, and even the sides of the building early in the week.”
“It will be ready,” Brabham promised. “We’ve had construction crews working 12 hours a day and my people (at Brabham Petroleum) have been working over here, too. My payroll recently has been based on 70-hour weeks.”
Among the workers was Lancer hockey goalie Cary Walker, driving a forklift. Members of the William Byrd High School football team helped clean the building to get ready for the first hockey game.
It was uncertain whether the heating system would be complete before the opening game. Brabham advised fans to “wear long johns for the opener” but promised some sort of heating system would be available.
The press box was not completed and “often-pampered reporters” would have to take their place among the fans, Brabham said.
In actuality, the hockey game was not played on Thanksgiving Day as Brabham thought it was “just too dangerous.” Many of the lights did not arrive on time, and he was “afraid a fan might be injured by a flying hockey puck. The puck is black, hard, and travels 100 mph. You need to be able to see it. We could have played, but I didn’t want to take the chance.”
Brabham said the fans “have been awfully nice. Nobody, and I mean nobody, has griped” about the delay of the arena opening. “We had one of our pre-sold tickets returned from the opening games and that was from a boy who had to go back to college.”
Brabham originally just wanted a home for the Lancers team and then the plans snowballed beyond all expectations. (to be continued)