This Week in the CCHA: Jan. 20, 2005

Am I Dreaming?

Two top-10 teams will be playing in Columbus this weekend, the building is sold out, and the Frozen Four is months away.

And the skies have obliged us with snow.

Folks in states like Michigan take for granted the omnipresence of hockey is omnipresent, the knowledgeable fans who know when to applaud at a game, a winter that is — mostly — a consistently, recognizable season.

Here in central Ohio, where the temperature can approach 70 degrees one week in January and zero the next and where the only game in town from August through Bowl Time is Buckeye football, a sold-out Schottenstein Center for a regular-season hockey series is rare and exciting.

How rare? Think snow days in Syracuse. Or A Charlie Brown Christmas, pre-cable. That first stride onto the frozen pond after a month of gray, anticipating days.

The week before the Buckeyes and Wolverines meet to end the Big Ten football season, whether the game is played here or in Ann Arbor, every cashier in ever grocery store in Columbus is decked in scarlet and … well, mostly scarlet, sometimes with those annoying Buckeye necklaces, folks don’t usually wear gray. Every news anchor makes reference to “The Game” even when not teasing the obligatory preview. Citizens wear tee-shirts splattered with large, Michigan-directed obscenities.

OSU students toilet-paper their own campus, radio sports shows whip callers into a “Go Bucks!” frenzy, and those of us not native to these parts wonder if anyone around here knows all the words to “Hang on Sloopy.”

Michigan Week — aptly named, since it usually ends with a Wolverine victory on the gridiron — is supposed to come just once a year in Columbus, but with two sell-out crowds, no distracting NHL, and a familiar nemesis, even the local sportscasters are catching the buzz and the phrase usually reserved for football has been applied to (sacrilege!) our favorite game.

“I think it will be exciting to have Michigan Week, I guess you could call it. As a coach, you’re looking at last week as Notre Dame week, and next week as Western Michigan week.”

If Ohio State head coach John Markell sounds nonplussed, that’s because he knows a few things the local talking heads don’t. First, the Buckeyes have a dismal record against the Wolverines all-time (24-56-11).

Second, Markell is 6-19-6 against Michigan all-time.

Third, even though the Buckeyes and Wolverines are 2-2-2 in their last six meetings, the record is 6-2-2 in Michigan’s favor for the last 10 games.

“You don’t want to get too high and you don’t want to get too low,” says Markell. “I’m pretty sure the sun is going to come up on Monday and Sunday and we’ll have to move on either way. Again, we’re looking at this as an exciting opportunity to play a good team, a team that’s ahead of us that we’re trying to chase, the third-ranked team in the nation.”

If Markell sounds business-as-usual, he’s not alone. Michigan head coach Red Berenson doesn’t underestimate the Buckeyes, not one bit.

“They’ve had a great year. Right from the get-go when they went in and swept Ferris State [on the road], you could tell they were for real. Let’s be honest here. I expect two battles. I’m sure they do, too.”

Like the football rivalry, Buckeye fans are the ones more likely to get worked up about this series than are the Wolverine faithful. After all, Michigan has owned Ohio State on the ice for years, and a rivalry really isn’t one unless it’s competitive. In fact, Michigan has been the premier CCHA team for so long that every team it plays considers it a “rival,” while the opposite may not be true.

And what else can be said about this series that hasn’t been said already? “Exactly,” says Berenson.

“Exactly,” says Markell.

What remains is what is to take place on the ice, and the facts are these:

Both teams have goaltenders who can play brilliantly, or let in a few softies.

Both teams can run up a score on an opponent, but Michigan tends to do that more than does Ohio State. Each team’s offense can overcome a sub-par performance in net.

Michigan’s defense scores; Ohio State’s defense stays at home more.

OSU may have an edge in special teams. Just ask Berenson about Michigan’s penalty kill, which has seen better days. “It seems like it’s an off-and-on issue. A month ago our PK was one of the best in the country and our power play was down a little bit. It definitely is a concern and I can’t tell you what the answer is or we wouldn’t be talking about it.”

The Wolverines have allowed at least one power-play goal in seven consecutive games, and the Michigan penalty kill which was successful at a 90.2 percent clip in December is performing at 65.5 percent through four games in January, during which the Wolverines have allowed opponents to score more than once per game.

Still, it’s hard to feel sorry for the Wolverines, who are still 13-3-1 when allowing a goal on the power play.

There is no question that special teams will factor into these games. Even though the Buckeyes — the nation’s most-penalized team — plays a different, more controlled game at home, each of these teams will have a chance to show off its glorious offense with a man advantage, and here the Buckeyes have the advantage in the form of one player. Rod Pelley leads the league in power-play goals (nine) and is a wicked threat from the right point.

Want some other numbers? Here they are:

• Goals per game: UM 4.38 (first); OSU 3.42 (second)
• Goals allowed per game: UM 2.58 (fourth); OSU 2.25 (second)
• Power play: UM 20.4 % (third); OSU 20.0% (fourth)
• Penalty kill: UM 83.4% (seventh); OSU 87.7% (second)
• Top scorer: UM T.J. Hensick (15-17–32); OSU Tom Fritsche (4-21–25)
• Top ‘tender: UM Al Montoya (2.68 GAA, .897 SV%); OSU Dave Caruso (2.12 GAA, .920 SV%)

The Wolverines have four guys in double digits in goal production: Hensick, Jeff Tambellini (12-18–30), Milan Gajic (11-14–25), and Brandon Kaleniecki (10-5–15). With 13 goals on the season, Pelley is the only guy to hit or surpass the 10-goal marker for the Buckeyes.

The Wolverines are coming off a two-game home sweep of Alaska-Fairbanks, one in which they outscored their opponent 10-4, which is definitely more business as usual for Michigan than was the previous weekend, when they needed 12 goals to beat the nine that Western scored. The sheer number of goals Michigan can allow is definitely a concern.

But Berenson said that he’s not at all concerned about Montoya’s performance in net, in spite of the junior’s stats.

“I’m not saying he’s struggled. I’m just saying that Al’s going through what a lot of first-round draft picks go through, players who have gone through a lot of early success have gone through.

“Getting the World Junior tournament out of the way he can just focus on our season.

“The bottom line for the coach is not the save percentage, not the goals against, but the wins. We gave up nine goals against Western and he was one of our best players.

“Western played their absolute tails off against us. Their power play was clicking, and they had six power-play goals against us and it was hard hockey.”

The Buckeyes have a few concerns of their own, although Markell insists that goal scoring isn’t among them, even though OSU hasn’t been spectacular in that area for its last five games. OSU tied Colorado College 2-2, then split at home with Ferris State, scoring five on that weekend, and just last week the Bucks went to Notre Dame and won 3-1 and 4-1.

Until FSU came to Columbus, OSU was averaging about 4.7 goals per game at home, but Markell says that his team is still creating opportunities, and that’s what counts.

“As you get toward the end of the season, it gets harder to score goals. It’s not that easy. Teams tighten up and obviously points become harder [because] teams are playing harder against you.”

Markell credits Notre Dame goaltender Morgan Cey with a great performance, saying that the score in Saturday’s 3-1 game could have been much more lopsided. “You take what the games give you and you stay patient with that. You don’t let it frustrate you.

“I appreciate it that our team felt that was good enough to win the game. They didn’t go running and gunning. One goal up is enough. They waited for their opportunity and it didn’t present itself, so we won the game with an empty-net goal.

“I was very happy with the way we played team defense to create the turnovers we needed and get pucks deep and do the things we do.”

Naturally, CCHA fans remember the last meeting between these two teams, OSU’s 4-2 win to secure its first postseason league title since 1972. That team made an incredible run through the 2004 Super Six, with two overtime wins and that final game against the heavily favored Michigan.

The Wolverines were completely stymied by the Buckeyes for 50 minutes of that contest, during which Ohio State ran up an improbable 3-0 lead. Then, for the heart-stopping final 10 minutes of the game, Michigan found its collective feet and scored two goals and threatened more.

Somehow, Ohio State held on, Doug Andress shot the puck the length of the ice into an empty net, and the Buckeyes raised their banner in Joe Louis Arena where it hangs today, even though no one is there to see it.

The OSU team that won that title is very different from this year’s incarnation. “Night and day,” says captain JB Bittner. “. Last year, we relied on a handful of guys to do the scoring for us and we really concentrated on defense. This year, we have a lot of the same toughness, but we are a lot faster, a lot quicker with some of our younger guys and we have more guys who can put points on the board.”

The Buckeyes regularly play as many as nine freshmen, while the Wolverines returned the core of a team that feels invincible. “I think everyone in our locker room thinks we should be 16-0,” says Hensick. “That was a devastating loss to Ferris in overtime, but we’re playing hard, we’re playing well in our CCHA games.

“And we know that each game, no matter who you play, it’s going to be a battle, and you can lose that game.”

Picks: I wouldn’t be surprised by anything this weekend, but I will be disappointed if either team blows the other out. I’m hoping for close, great, D-I battles, games that feel like NCAA playoff games. OSU 3-2, Michigan 3-2

Back in Ann Arbor …

Yes, I’m on the bandwagon to clean up the cheers in Yost Arena and several other CCHA venues. I’ve gone on record as saying that obscenities chanted in unison by 1,000 or more fans are not only inappropriate but unimaginative.

Both Red Berenson and WMU head coach Jim Culhane made personal appeals to their student fans last season, and each met with some success. Culhane says he’s very happy with the way in which the “Lawson Lunatics” have mostly cleaned up their language, but there are still issues at Yost that need to be addressed.

The Michigan athletic department has been working actively to change some fan behavior in Yost, and with the cooperation of the Michigan Student Assembly, the good folks at UM have reason to be optimistic.

“They took the initiative and put on kind of a town hall meeting a week ago last Tuesday,” says Tom Brooks, the marketing director for UM hockey. The MSU, as the Michigan Student Assembly is known, is on board to help redirect that incredible student energy towards a profanity-free — but still incredibly “hostile,” in the good sense of the word — environment at Yost.

“We really went up threw with the intent to listen to their concerns … and say, ‘Hey, guys, we need your help,'” says Brooks. “What’s evolved from that first meeting is a great series of open dialogues.”

Brooks says that the student season ticket holders must be involved in every aspect of these discussions because they need to both “recognize the problem” and realize “that they have a role in its solution.”

Brooks is very open about the kind and number of complaints that the athletic department has received from fans at hockey games, and he wants students to answer one question: “Do you want your Michigan hockey team to lose NCAA events because of fans’ behavior?”

“We were cited and actually penalized and had to pay a fine after one of the Regionals and one of the items cited was our fan behavior toward visiting fans.”

That was the NCAA Midwest Regional in 2002, and the specific game was Michigan’s 5-3 win over Denver that sent the Wolverines to the Frozen Four.

Fan behavior toward fans of visiting Miami was an issue this year, and an ongoing problem is the “C-Ya” chant, which follows an opposing player into the penalty box and ends with a string of obscenities, some of which I won’t even hint at here.

“One of the toughest things we’re really fighting,” says Brooks, “is the unofficial tradition — every class has decided on its own to add a different word. We’re trying to change that culture.”

The discussions, as you can imagine, border on absurd. Students who have no problem chanting the vilest profanities you can imagine en masse at a game refer to them “in code,” says Brooks, in the more polite society of these meetings.

Brooks insists that the UM athletic department is not trying to change much at Yost, just the stuff that’s inappropriate. “It’s tough for families to bring kids into that environment. That breaks our hearts. But one of the things we don’t want to do is bring down the level of creativity.

“It’s not an us vs. them mentality, and we’ve seen progress. The key was to get the support of the student government and our division of student affairs.”

And, without sounding arrogant, Brooks says that the University of Michigan feels a sense of responsibility to the rest of the league, too, to “raise the bar,” so to speak. “This is our chance among all of our college hockey peers to take the initiative and change the behavior.”

Still More

Sure, there’s other hockey going on this week. Michigan State and Lake Superior State are tied in league standings — can you believe it? — and they’re meeting in East Lansing, which doesn’t look good for the Lakers.

Then there’s that little series between Ferris State and Alaska-Fairbanks, each tied — along with Miami and WMU — for eighth. I’m glad it’s in Fairbanks, because I can listen to the fabulous Bruce Cech and Eric Drygas after the Wolverines and Buckeyes duke it out. The Nanooks are glad it’s in Fairbanks, because they’re 3-2-1 at home, and 3-9-0 on the road.

Bob Daniels and the Bulldogs, however, are probably not too pleased with having to play on the big ice, where they are 8-12-1 against UAF. They’re probably not happy about the prospect of daily highs in the low single digits, either, which is at least 10 degrees below what they’d experience at home.

It’s interesting that a year ago, the league race came down to the very last regular-season game, and Michigan needed OSU to beat Miami in order to take the title home to Ann Arbor. A year ago, four teams — Michigan, Miami, OSU, and Michigan State, in a “super cluster” — were vying for the title, a pleasant change from years past when the CCHA was a “two-tier” league of the points haves and have-nots.

This year, even if the Buckeyes take four points this weekend — and I don’t see that happening — they probably won’t catch the Wolverines, who are five points ahead of them in the standings.

Last year, five CCHA teams were invited to the NCAA tournament, something the league pointed to as evidence of depth and parity. This year, I’ve seen Ferris State, Alaska-Fairbanks, and Miami — all tied with MSU for eighth, remember — and not one of them looked like a weak sister, yet it’s unlikely that anyone other than Michigan and Ohio State will get bids.

I’ve watched with interest the migration of a certain stomach virus. Yes, this sounds gross, but it has been a factor in D-I hockey this year. Those of us who have talked about it seem to think it started with Harvard, but I know it eventually made its way to Ohio State — via Mankato or CC, I can’t remember which, at the Ohio Hockey Classic — and probably by now has made the rounds through Ferris State, given how these things travel. Several Buckeyes were sick with it when FSU was in town (so was I, incidentally). MSU’s David Booth has reportedly lost 20 pounds because of this and will return to the game when he’s strong enough to play.

And, finally, a thought about the nature of sportsmanship. I’ve received a stunning amount of email from Michigan fans who say I should just “leave the kids alone” regarding the behavior in Yost, and I’ve received a good number of messages that take me to task for not denouncing the behavior of OSU fans at football games.

I don’t doubt that fan behavior in The ‘Shoe is atrocious. I’ve never actually attended an OSU football game. I’m not a big college football fan, and although I take a passing professional interest in it — and I can’t avoid having it crammed down my throat for five months of the year — I just don’t care to attend a game.

But, living in Columbus, I have witnessed some shameful behavior from OSU football fans, and one incident comes to mind from 1990, after I had just relocated here from Western New York.

I was in line at a grocery store, the former Big Bear, in Clintonville, not even two miles north of the OSU campus. It was a Saturday, a game day, and the place was packed with people buying beer and snacks. Everyone was wearing Ohio State colors, everyone except for a few nonparticipants like myself and the couple in line in front of me.

They were in their 50s, dressed in Michigan garb, and were purchasing disposable cameras and some snacks. The guy in front of them — in a Buckeye jersey — gave them a good-natured ribbing, but the cashier did not.

This obnoxious little thing who claimed to be an OSU student immediately began to berate this couple and wondered aloud — very aloud — why she should have to stoop to “serve” them.

“Because they’re your customers,” I said, “and they’re guests here. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

The manager intervened and apologized to the couple and waited on them and me himself. The couple smiled at me, but I felt terrible for them, and having just moved to Columbus wondered if it was safe for them to walk to their cars in broad daylight.

It’s the mob mentality, the bully gene that gets me, and I have to say that what I witnessed that day in 1990, during my very first season of Buckeye football in Columbus, has soured me on the football fans here forever.

When I started covering hockey, I dreaded encountering the same thing. The fact that OSU drew so few fans in the old rink notwithstanding, I was surprised and delighted by the hockey fans I met, fans of every team in the league, and in turn I became a fan of the sport and the CCHA myself.

Why the Michigan hockey fans would want to stoop to the level of OSU football fans is just baffling to me.