The Cold War started the novelty in 2001, but little did Michigan and Michigan State know that historical game would be the springboard for a wave of popularity surrounding outdoor hockey games over the coming 10-plus years.
“Michigan State pulled it off in 2001 and everyone was amazed at how magical it was,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said earlier this week. “It was just an unbelievable experience. … I remember Gordie Howe was there to drop the puck and he said, ‘I thought I’d seen everything in hockey, but this is unbelievable.'”
On Sunday, Michigan and Ohio State will square off in the Frozen Diamond Faceoff on the Cleveland Indians baseball diamond, Progressive Field; it’s the first outdoor college hockey game in Ohio.
And while the outdoor games have become a novelty to most, for Berenson, they’re just a throwback to his playing days in Regina, Saskatchewan, to when he used to repair a broken hockey stick in order to skate on the local rink and play the game he loved as a young boy.
“When we were kids, we played all of our hockey outside,” he said of the 1940s and ’50s. “Then, it was a real privilege to play inside.”
For the third time in three years, Berenson will coach an outdoor game, his fourth total during his 28-year tenure behind the Michigan bench. While all have been special to the Wolverines, Michigan fans now see last year’s Big Chill at the Big House as the prototypical example of an outdoor game.
“It was bigger, and better — it was unbelievable. The attendance obviously made a statement,” Berenson said of the largest crowd to ever see a hockey game, an announced attendance of 113,411.
On the opposite bench leading the Buckeyes on Sunday will be second-year coach Mark Osiecki. Like Berenson, the Burnsville, Minn., native is no stranger to coaching in outdoor games.
While this will be his first outdoor game as the head man at Ohio State, Osiecki also coached in two outdoor venues as an assistant with Wisconsin: the Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., in 2006 and the Camp Randall Hockey Classic in Madison in 2010. The latter saw Wisconsin rally past Michigan with two late power-play goals.
“Certainly for us it was great,” Osiecki said of the 3-2 win on Feb. 10, 2010. “There was a lot of excitement because of that. We were able to feed off the crowd. … I thought the whole experience was outstanding.”
Added Berenson: It was a real winter event. It was very cold, so cold the ice was breaking.”
Fast forward to the present, where Osiecki said there has been quite the excitement surrounding the program and the city of Cleveland in anticipation of the Frozen Diamond Faceoff.
“Last week, we went up to Cleveland to try and get the ‘wow’ factor out,” Osiecki said. “The excitement is certainly there — you feel it around town here and you definitely feel it in Cleveland as well. A lot of people have been talking hockey that way, so it’s certainly exciting for us.”
On the Michigan side, there hasn’t been much buildup to this particular game, according to Berenson. No excessive media at practices, no practicing on the outdoor ice for a few days, no buzz around the rink — nothing.
“We’re starting to talk about it now, but up until [Tuesday], it was a non-event,” Berenson said. “It was just on our schedule.”
Despite the gimmicks and hoopla surrounding a game like this, it is still a CCHA regular season game. No. 15 Michigan is hoping to turn the corner in the conference chase for a first-round bye in the conference playoffs — one point separates the Wolverines from fifth place. Questions still loom around whether Michigan can play consistent, 60-minute hockey in the second half of the season.
No. 2 Ohio State, on the other hand, is still in a rebuilding phase despite being “further ahead than expected,” as Osiecki said on Wednesday. Even with 12 freshmen, the Buckeyes find themselves sitting atop the CCHA standings, seven points ahead of second-place Notre Dame.
Regardless of the disparity in conference placement, the spotlight will shine on Cleveland this weekend and two of the CCHA’s bitter rivals will square off on a baseball diamond.
“It’s good visibility for our school, and it’s good exposure,” Berenson said. “I think it’s great for college hockey as well to be on a big stage.”