The Outdoor Game

Michigan (0-0-0) vs. Michigan State (0-0-0)
Saturday, 7:05 p.m., Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Mich.

What better way to kick off the school year than by driving to the stadium, firing up the grill, and throwing the pigskin around before filing into the sold-out arena along with 70,000 other fans to watch the titans of fall — and winter — clash it out under the open sky?

That it’s Michigan State hosting Michigan, on ice, makes it that much sweeter.

“The Outdoor Game” — renamed from “The Cold War” out of respect for recent events — is more than just the first game of the season between the archrival Spartans and Wolverines. This game is an event designed to set hockey attendance records, to realize the vision of two college hockey coaches, and to promote the game of college hockey.

“It is an event,” says Ron Mason, Michigan State head coach. “There’s no question that this is bigger than the game itself.”

Michigan head coach Red Berenson says that this week has been “exciting” because of the extra attention surrounding the novelty of this game, but he adds that the Wolverines are focusing on “preparing for Michigan State and the first CCHA game” of the season.

While the rink itself will be regulation size, it’s probably been a long time since any Spartan or Wolverine played hockey outdoors, and there are players on both squads who have never really played a game outside. Adjusting to the atmosphere — and the crowd — will require “discipline and enthusiasm,” says Berenson.

The ice rink will be located in the center of Spartan Stadium’s football field, extending beyond the 20-yard lines. The ice surface, provided by Los Tres Papagayos of Van Nuys, Calif., will be frozen by a series of aluminum plates, and chilled by a 281-ton refrigeration unit. The system, recommended by the National Hockey League, was featured in the movie Mystery, Alaska, and can handle most weather conditions. Light rain won’t affect it, but heavy rain would postpone the game until Sunday.

“The feeling will be a little different,” says Berenson, “when you look out and see the sky.”

An estimated 38 million homes in North America will be able to see the Cold War through Fox Sports Net and Canada’s CTV Sportsnet. Fox Sports Net Detroit will carry the game live to 2.6 million cable subscribers in Michigan, northern Indiana, and northwest Ohio.

Additionally, nine Fox affiliates will carry the game nationwide, including affiliates Fox Sports Net Ohio, Fox Sports Net Chicago, Fox Sports Net Midwest, Fox Sports Net North, Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh, Fox Sports Net New England, Fox Sports Net Rocky Mountain, Fox Sports Net Bay Area, and Fox Sports Net Florida. CTV will also be tape-delayed. Dates and times for the tape-delay broadcasts have not been announced.

Regardless of the hype, drama, and miles of electrical wires, at the heart of Spartan Stadium Saturday night will be two teams playing their first league game of the season. This fabled rivalry brings with it a rich history that adds layers of meaning to this historic game.

  • This is the 238th meeting between Michigan and Michigan State.
  • The Wolverines lead the all-time series 122-107-8.
  • The teams last met in the 2001 CCHA championship game, which the Spartans won 2-0.
  • The Spartans bested the Wolverines four of five times during the 2000-01 season.
  • Michigan and Michigan State have combined to win 10 of the last 13 regular-season CCHA championship titles (five each), and nine of the league’s last 13 championship titles (MSU has five).
  • Michigan and Michigan State have also combined for 17 NCAA tournament berths and 10 Frozen Four appearances in the last 10 years.

The Spartans, led from the net out by last year’s Hobey Baker winner, junior Ryan Miller, will likely show their business-as-usual side, limiting opponent chances and scoring three or so goals. Last season, Michigan State was third in scoring (3.27 goals per game), while first in goals allowed (just 1.34 per contest).

Defensively, Michigan State returns Brad Fast, Andrew Hutchinson, and John-Michael Liles, who is apparently so moved by the outdoor game that he’s keeping a diary.

On the other side of the puck, Brian Maloney and Adam Hall return, both of whom excel on Michigan State’s power play, which was tops in the league last year (.230).

Lest you forget, Red Berenson wants to remind you that the Wolverines have “a pretty good goalie of our own and a good defense.”

Josh Blackburn, the often-overshadowed Michigan netminder, had a goals against average of 2.27 and a .905 save percentage in overall games. That Michigan defense includes Mike Komisarek, Andy Burnes, and the underrated Mike Roemensky — plus a score of newcomers, including Nick Martens, Reilly Olson, Brandon Rogers, and Eric Werner.

The Wolverines — always an offensive threat, averaging 3.75 goals per game last season — lost key offensive player Andy Hilbert, and the returning phenom Mike Cammalleri may be out with an injury for this game.

The outcome of this contest, which is the first of the only two regular-season meetings between the Spartans and Wolverines, is anyone’s guess, given the nature of the setting and the hype surrounding the event. But if you look at this from a purely hockey point of view, given the “home” advantage, the newness of the Michigan defense, the injury to Cammalleri, and the mere fact of Ryan Miller, this one should go Michigan State’s way.

Pick: MSU 3-1

Other Picks for the Weekend

The only other Division I action for CCHA teams this week is the two-game series between Air Force and Alaska Fairbanks. The Friday-Saturday series will be played in Fairbanks, each game at 7:05 p.m. AT. Of course, the Nanooks will win, even without my boyfriend, Chad Hamilton.

Pick: UAF 4-3, 4-2