By Ryan Lund
It started hours before the games began, with a souvenir hockey puck that mistakenly pitted Michigan State against “Michigan University,” and continued into Saturday afternoon, as mild temperatures delayed puck drop for nearly two hours.
But while this year’s Hockey City Classic pitted Miami-Ohio, Western Michigan, Michigan and Michigan State against poor ice conditions and an announced attendance of just 22,751 at 61,500-seat Soldier Field, Miami coach Enrico Blasi says that his team would do it all again.
“If they invite us to come back again, we’re here,” Blasi said. “This is a great thing for our game, for college hockey.
The RedHawks knocked off National Collegiate Hockey Conference rival Western Michigan 4-3 to kick off the event, before Michigan blasted Michigan State 4-1 in the night game.
Originally slated for a 3 p.m. start time, Miami and Western Michigan spent over an hour in the locker room before the game finally got underway at 4:40 p.m.
Meanwhile, Michigan and Michigan State were pushed back to 8:40 p.m.
“After last night, I didn’t think that there was much hope that we’d have this today,” Michigan State coach Tom Anastos said.
Temperatures hovered in the low 40s throughout the afternoon, as crews worked to make the surface playable while game one was continually pushed back.
According to Western Michigan freshman Aidan Muir, the delays began to wear on the players.
“When you’re told to wait half an hour, you adjust to that, and then you need to wait another half-hour, then another half-hour, it gets rough,” Muir said. “But you’ve got to find a way around it. You need to eat while you’re waiting, you need to stretch and stay mentally prepared.”
Meanwhile, Blasi and the RedHawk’s coaching staff did their best to keep the team on its toes.
“We tried to get them going again and into their routine every time we got a half hour we were going to be delayed,” Blasi said. “… But after the third one they were calling my bluff, so I’m glad that we got the game in.”
Western Michigan spotted the RedHawks a 4-0 lead through the first two periods but the Broncos stormed back in the third, scoring three times in the final period.
“There’s no moral victories in sport,” Broncos coach Andy Murray said. “I did like the battle of our team in the third period, to come back under tough circumstances, a scenario where I believe that a lot of teams would have just walked away from this rink.”
Miami and WMU struggled to generate chances throughout the game, as the puck seemingly refused to lay flat on the ice.
“You can’t try and make the fancy play,” Miami freshman Louie Belpedio said. “All the goals were ugly, that’s what it takes sometimes, and I think we were able to do that a little better than they were, and that’s why we won tonight.”
However, by the time Big 10 rivals Michigan and Michigan State made their way down the tunnel, the ice appeared to have improved, as Wolverines sophomore Michael Downing ripped home a rare chance from the blue line, the first long-range goal on the day.
“Last night there was little chips and kind of holes, tonight it was just a little soft,” Michigan State junior Michael Ferrantino said. “The ice was actually better than we thought it was going to be.”
At this point, both teams should be accustomed to outdoor ice after setting a college hockey attendance record back in 2010, drawing more than 113,000 fans to Michigan Stadium for the Big Chill at the Big House.
Michigan has now played in seven outdoor games – more than any other team in college hockey – but despite the conditions and a smaller crowd, Wolverines coach Red Berenson is still a believer.
“I played most of my hockey as a kid outdoors, and then it was a treat to play indoors, and now, for these kids, they play all their hockey indoors and it’s a treat to play outdoors., Berenson said following practice Friday.
But while the players and coaches appear to have an appetite for outdoor hockey, attendance at the event was sparse, with entire sections of the nearly 62,000-seat stadium’s lower bowl left virtually empty.
Still, with pep bands stationed behind each goaltender, and healthy contingents from WMU and Miami tagging out for fans from Michigan and MSU, Blasi was quick to dismiss the relatively poor turnaround as a non-factor.
“I couldn’t tell. From the bench we could feel the energy behind us,” Blasi said.