The significance of Lambeau Field doesn’t need to be explained to the 13 Wisconsinites on the Wisconsin roster. It’s part of the culture of the state — the publicly owned Green Bay Packers and the grounds on which they play are state treasures to the dedicated followers.
Now, Wisconsin hockey players are about to become part of the storied history that accompanies Lambeau. They play Ohio State in the Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic at 3 p.m. Central Time Saturday. There have been few events at the stadium outside of football that have captured as much attention as this game.
“It’s definitely a game that I’m going to remember for the rest of my life,” said Badgers junior center Jake Dowell, an Eau Claire, Wis., native. “This is such a cool thing that we’re doing, and it’s only been done a couple times before. I was actually living in Ann Arbor [with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program] when they did the last one at Michigan State, so I watched that on TV and I thought that was pretty cool. To get a chance to be on the team that gets to be the first to do this in Wisconsin, I think is a really cool thing.”
The game will be one of the highlights of the 2005-06 college hockey season, with a crowd of nearly 40,000 expected to create a carnival-like atmosphere around the open-air stadium. Just like a Packers game, only smaller.
Lambeau Field, opened in 1957, has been the site of three NFL championship games, most notably the 1967 Ice Bowl where the game-time temperature was minus-13.
That aura, the event, the atmosphere and the hype might serve to distract from the game, but Wisconsin players are trying to avoid that.
The Badgers are looking at this game as a welcome diversion from a recent stretch in which they’re 1-5 in WCHA play. Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said he hopes this week energizes the team for the stretch run.
“It’s good. It pumps us up,” said Badgers senior winger Ryan MacMurchy, a Regina, Saskatchewan, native who has adopted the Packers as his NFL rooting interest. “We’re going to take it all in. It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be an experience you remember for the rest of your life, playing at Lambeau Field, 35,000 people.
“But we’re going to go out and play and try to win, obviously. It’s not going to be just some holiday game. We’re going to compete to win.”
That figures to be a bit more of a challenge than usual, considering the element of the unknown surrounding playing on a temporary rink at one end of a football field. The lights will provide unfamiliar shadows that could make it difficult for the goaltenders to see the puck.
Yet there’s something about playing outdoors that brings the game back to its roots for Eaves, who started playing hockey outside in Saskatoon, Sask. There, kids were allowed to play until the temperature fell below minus-15.
“Playing outside has a uniqueness about it that is hard to relay to people that have never played outside,” Eaves said. “The sound the skate makes when it cuts the ice, the sound that the puck makes on your stick when you catch a pass and you slap a pass, it’s a very unique game of its own.
“It’ll be fun. What it does, it takes you back to the last time you played as a child. That’s what will be fun for a lot of the kids that have skated outside, to revisit that time in their life.”
Meanwhile, maybe it’s the immediacy of their schedule, or the urgency of their errand, or even the fact that they weren’t the first team approached to play Wisconsin in Lambeau Field — or even the first CCHA team to be approached — but the Ohio State Buckeyes have more on their minds than playing in the Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic.
“They haven’t even mentioned it,” said Ohio State head coach John Markell of his sixth-place Buckeyes.
That’s sixth place in the CCHA, and it’s a tie for sixth with Northern Michigan and Nebraska-Omaha.
“We got ourselves in the position to concentrate on the first game first,” said Markell. That first game is Thursday night’s home contest against No. 10 Michigan State.
After being picked to top the CCHA in both the coaches and media preseason polls, Ohio State has struggled to find a consistent game this season, playing solid defensively but finding scoring elusive. OSU has the fourth-best defense in the country but is 41st in scoring.
In the month of January, the Buckeyes scored 13 goals in nine games and were shut out four times, once each consecutive weekend. In that stretch, OSU was 3-5-1. After splitting with Michigan in Ann Arbor last weekend, the Buckeyes are 4-6-1 in their last 11.
“Michigan State demands our attention,” said Markell, “as would anyone we play right now, given the position we’re in.”
The Buckeye offense reemerged last weekend in a notoriously difficult rink. OSU beat Michigan 7-5 Friday before losing 3-2 Saturday, both game in Yost, but Markell can’t say for sure if scoring goals is going to become a permanent part of OSU hockey for the rest of the season. The Buckeyes will be without the services of two of their top five forwards for the rest of the season, as junior Mathieu Beaudoin and sophomore Dominic Maiani are injured.
Forward Corey Elkins, defenseman Tyson Strachan, and goaltender Ian Keserich are also out and may not return before the end of the year.
Because of these and earlier injuries, Markell has had to juggle the lines all season. Now, said Markell, the remaining players have been given a “green light” for offense, opening up the Buckeye game and — he hopes — creating more chances.
“We’re adapting to the personnel we have,” said Markell. “We have to utilize them the best way we can. All we can do is give them the systems and they have to execute them.”
That strategy leaves goaltender Dave Caruso hanging at times, but Markell said that the senior is up to the task. Caruso’s five goals against in last week’s win were uncharacteristic; he’s sixth in the nation in goals against (1.79), 13th in save percentage (.925).
“We want to focus on what we did well and what we didn’t do well in Michigan. We’re capable of playing. We still have areas of concern.”
Saturday’s game in Lambeau Field will be the fourth game in nine days that Ohio State will have played against a top-10 opponent, and after that contest, the Buckeyes have No. 2 Miami on the road Tuesday, Feb. 14.
Still, Markell said that he’s excited for the opportunity the game in Lambeau Field affords his players, even if getting there means that Notre Dame said no first.
“There’s a Big Ten flavor to it,” said Markell. “It certainly took some maneuvering.
“People still talk about who played in that first one. It’s interesting to see, too, that it’s four Big Ten teams who have done it first.
“This is something the players will be able to talk about for the rest of their lives. They’ll be able to look back on this and say they did this. It will be a great memory for them, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
But only after Michigan State is a memory.