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2010-06-07

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We Can't Hear You: The Story of the Children of Yost

Sam Wolson/Daily
Michigan celebrates after scoring during Michigan's 4-0 win against Notre Dame at Yost arena on February 25th 2010. Buy this photo

By Michael Florek, Daily Sports Writer
Published May 31, 2010

As the crowd filed through Yost Ice Arena's heavy wooden doors and spilled onto State Street, there was a feeling that this night, March 17, 1991 was a turning point.

It was the Michigan hockey team’s first year in the NCAA Tournament since 1977, and it had just won a decisive third game over Cornell to advance to the second round, just one series away from the Frozen Four. After years of mediocrity, Michigan coach Red Berenson had finally brought the program to the national stage.

Some Wolverine fans, and perhaps even some of the red-clad Cornell followers peppered in the masses exiting the building, realized this was a turning point outside the glass as well. They knew that this weekend was the beginning of the revival of the Michigan hockey program on and off the ice.

But they didn’t know that it would evolve into this.

Games at Yost have turned into a non-stop tirade against refs, the opposing team, its fans and, most importantly, its goalie. It starts before the first puck is dropped as fans tell referees to “check the net!" and after the official has done so, to “check it again!." The opposing player introductions are met with newspaper reading by the student section. And only after that does the crowd get rowdy.

The student section, dotted with celebrities like “the penguin guy” and “the guys dressed as Blues Brothers," extends the length of the arena, filling up the sections next to and behind both benches. It also spearheads the cheering effort of the 6,000-plus fans in the building, uniting the arena as one in order to tell the refs they suck, the opposing goalie he’s a sieve, and the opposing parents they are ugly — repeatedly.

“The kind of people who go to Yost are the kind of people that want to act like fools,” LSA junior Jamie Fogel said last month. “It’s, 'I’m going to come and act like an idiot. I’m going to dress like a penguin, I’m going to dress like Thomas the Tank Engine,' and it’s totally normal to do that.”

And when the game stops, the crowd keeps going. During intermission, the crowd tries to get a lucky seven-year old riding the zamboni to do poses that eventually results in taking his or her shoe off and throwing it on the ice. When the shoe goes flying, it is always met with a thunderous cheer. But that is just a warmup for the second intermission, which is highlighted by a rendition of the Blues Brothers song "Can't Turn You Loose" and has turned into a group dance for the entire student section.

With the volume, the intermission antics and the raucous multitude of mean-spirited chants comes the fact that these fans are some of the most knowledgeable college hockey fans in the country. The building will get just as loud for a good penalty kill as a goal, and they know a hand pass is legal in the defensive zone.

Most importantly, the fans have shown up game after game ever since that final game of Michigan’s three-game series with Cornell. Their dedication level has led to one of the most significant home-ice advantages in the country — the Wolverines have won 79 percent of their games at Yost since 1991.

“The dedication level, you can just kind of see it,” Engineering sophomore Rob Eckert said in May. “When you’re surrounded by passionate people, it’s hard not to catch on and always want to be there.”

So how did this happen? How did Yost become the most intimidating place to play in America?

Part of the final answer lies within the 3.7 million people who have walked through the Yost doors to support their beloved Wolverines. But it begins almost 40 years before many of today's fans were even born.

The Children Before the Children

Long before the Children of Yost had the rink vibrating with noise, the arena was housing footballs as the team's practice facility. The hockey — and the noise — was a few streets down, inside the Weinberg Coliseum (now the Sports Coliseum). It was there where then-coach Vic Heyliger created a simple method to put fans in the seats — win.

Six national championships brought the crowds in and Heyliger’s successor, Al Renfrew, kept the winning method going. By the time a young center from Saskatchewan named Red Berenson pulled the Michigan sweater over his head, supporters would line up all the way down Hill St. to try to be one of the approximately 2,000 lucky fans that squeezed into the building on gameday.

“It was a great environment for us. It wasn’t just the students, it was the townspeople, it was a little bit of everything,” Berenson said. “Some people now say, 'what kind of a rink was that?' Well, we thought it was great.”

Inside that comparatively tiny of a building, the University and the city of Ann Arbor set the precedent for supporting Michigan hockey. It was obviously smaller than Yost, and Berenson admits it wasn’t as organized, but the rules were still the same: Pack the building. Make it loud.

The pep band even showed its early form inside the Coliseum.

“I remember them playing 'The Victors' — a lot,” Berenson said after this season. “In a small building, as you can imagine, it’s even louder than it is in (Yost).”

Playing Road Games at Home

The year was 1984, and Michigan was in the middle of the lowest era in the history of the Michigan crowd.

Somewhere between the time Berenson transitioned from Michigan center to Michigan coach, The winning was interrupted. The Wolverines hadn’t finished first in the conference in 20 years and had made exactly one NCAA Tournament appearance in that time. In the five years before Berenson took over, the team had just a .479 winning percentage, and as the team lost, the foundation of support that was laid a few streets down began to erode.

Less than ten years after Michigan moved to Yost Ice Arena in 1973, it played most of its games with the paint-chipped bleachers empty. The atmosphere was non-existent. The high volume of students and townspeople stopped showing up and the band became a collection of students with nothing better to do.

“It was a kind of piecemeal situation, like ‘we have 18 tickets, who wants to come?’ ” John Pasquale, Director of the Michigan Hockey Pep Band, said in May. “So we’ll have six trombones and a flute, two tubas and a bass drum and we’ll kind of get together and just kind of play just for fun."

The same high ceilings and brick walls that would be ideal for holding in sound and adding to the raucous atmosphere that would arrive years later only contributed to the dire situation of Michigan’s crowd at the time.

“There was nobody in the building,” Berenson said. “It was like being in a big cave.”

But there were games when the potential of Yost could be seen. Twice a year, Yost was rocking — for the other team. When rival Michigan State came to town, so did its supporters.

While the Wolverines and Spartans battled on the Yost ice, the official colors in the stands were Green and White. Inside the building named for one of the greatest figures in Michigan athletics, the sold out crowd donned the other team's colors and watched its Spartans play their inferior neighbors.

“It was embarrassing,” Berenson said.

From the embarrassment, came action. Berenson wanted the Michigan State fans out of Yost. Michigan needed its own fans, and so the coaching staff began to reach out.

“One of the programs they implemented was to try to block them out,” associate head coach Mel Pearson said. “So they did go up on campus in the Diag and to the faculty and the students to try to get them at least to buy Michigan State tickets, so we wouldn’t have a road game at home.”

It wasn’t just going to the Diag. It was going to the dorms. It was sending players to fraternities and sororities. It was putting brochures in the dorm mailbox of every freshman.

More importantly, it was turning a 12-26-0 record into 22-15-4 and eventually, turning that into 34-10-3. Wearers of the Maize and Blue began to fill the building consistently. By the time Michigan hosted the 1991 NCAA regional, it had enough fans to set a weekend attendance record that still stands to this day.

But the attendance was only the first step in creating a true home-ice advantage.

The Turning Point

The student section, barely extending blue line to blue line behind the benches, had already started the countdown.

No. 3 seed Michigan was up 4-3 on sixth-seeded Cornell as the seconds slowly counted down in the 1991 Regional. The crowd, staring at the approximately 200 Cornell fans situated near center ice on the side opposite of the student section, belted out the numbers. “Five! Four! Three! Two!...”. But the countdown never finished.

Big Red forward Kent Manderville slapped a backhand shot from the top of the circle past freshman goaltender Steve Shields to tie the game. Cornell then scored on its first trip down the ice in overtime to end the game, but it was the halted countdown that spurred the veteran Big Red crowd.

“I’ve never heard a countdown stop,” William Sangrey, a Cornell graduate student at the time said. “Five, four, three, two, and it stopped. The whole building just stopped.”

The following night, as the first period waned down, the boisterous Cornellians added a new chant to their already versatile repertoire.

“They would go, ‘Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, OHHH!’ to make fun of the crowd reaction,” then-Michigan graduate student Matt Thullen said. “I was like, ‘hey that was actually pretty clever.’ ”

But the Michigan fans were drawn in before that. The personal cheers and cleverness of Cornell clicked with them, and on that weekend in mid-March, the crowd took its first step toward becoming what it is today. In the face of the rowdy Ivy League crowd, it began to defend its building.

“(The Cornell fans) were loud and they got their message across, and I think the fans kind of took it as a challenge,” Thullen said. “We’re the ones with the intimidating building. We’re the home team. We’re not going to let these guys come in and basically do anything (they want).”

But many of the Michigan fans were new to college hockey and didn’t know how to pass the test presented by the Cornell contingent. So, the Wolverine fans took the Big Red’s cheers.

The number and variety of cheers that were taken vary, depending on the memory of each person that was there. Some say that Steve Shields wasn’t the only goalie who had his mother call to tell him he sucked. Others can only remember Cornell goaltender Jim Crozier getting hit with “It’s all your fault! It’s all your fault!” added to the end of Michigan’s already established goal count. But the most important lesson that Big Red crowd taught wasn’t a specific chant — it was the attitude that a college hockey crowd should have.

“I think that the Cornell folks kind of taught us how you can really make a chant that really gets under people’s skin a little bit better,” Thullen said.

And after a 6-4 Michigan win, the decisive game came on a St. Patrick’s Day Sunday in front of Berenson’s first sellout that wasn't against Michigan State. Michigan rode the crowd to a 9-3 victory.

The winning method had been restored.

The win also ended the three-day fan crash course. The Michigan faithful left for seven months of hibernation, unsure if the atmosphere would take hold without Cornell baiting them. So in the home opener of the 1991-92 season, the crowd faced another test — Michigan State. The fans showed up, and armed with their knowledge from early March, Michigan home games have never been the same.

“The very first series of games, it was packed,” Eric Storhok, a graduate student at the time, said last month. “The student section basically filled the entire end … There was enough students that once somebody came up with a clever cheer, everybody was doing it immediately.”

It was the beginning of the modern era of the Yost crowd, one that has relied on the cheers and ability to adapt that was taught to them by 200 kids from Ithaca, New York. And when the Big Red came back to Yost in 1997, they saw the monster they had created.

“They gave us a hard time about stealing their chants and those of us who were at that game were like, 'if we could chant 'thank you,' we would,” Storhok said.

The Molly Incident

For 24 hours, Molly McGannon was the most hated person in Ann Arbor.

The Michigan crowd had a newfound swagger after Berenson completed the revival on the ice with two national championships, including one that saw Michigan upset heavily favored North Dakota in the 1998 NCAA Regional at Yost. When the regional returned to Ann Arbor in 2002 for the first time since the national championship, the wrath that had evolved in those 10 years since the crowd's 1991 lesson was on full display.

In the 2001 regional in Grand Rapids, Michigan and St. Cloud State had their first ever meeting. For McGannon, one of the Huskies’ skating cheerleaders, once was enough. But the next year, St. Cloud drew the No. 5 seed, sentenced to play the fourth-seeded Wolverines again, this time in Ann Arbor. In the week leading up to the game, McGannon made a fatal mistake and made her feelings of the Michigan crowd known.

“The University of Michigan fans are like combining (North Dakota) Sioux fans and Minnesota Gophers fans,” McGannon told the St. Cloud Times a few days before the game. “They're horrible people. It's like they've never seen hockey cheerleaders.

“Their band was obnoxious, horrible, not very welcoming at all. Now it's going to be on their home ice, and they'll be worse.”

For any fan that missed it, The Michigan Daily reprinted a portion of the quote the day of the game. By the time it got around campus, the girl known to Ann Arbor as simply "Molly" was the enemy. When eight o’clock came around that night, the crowd was prepared.

“We’re walking around before the game and there’s a couple of St. Cloud cheerleaders in front of us … I just yell out, ‘Are you Molly?’ ” Tim Williams, a student at the time, said in an interview last month. “These girls turn around, a look of absolute horror on their face. They had no idea how we found out about that.”

Once the cheerleaders stepped out onto the ice, Molly’s words became a self-fulfilling prophecy — the Michigan fans were worse. Dollar bills were waving throughout the student section as the crowd chanted “Jer-sey Chas-ers” to the cheerleaders skating on the ice during warm-ups. If that wasn’t enough, some cheerleaders ventured on to the Michigan side of center ice and six-foot-four, 245 pound sophomore defensemen Mike Komisarek decided to put them in their place. A little tug on the skates of a cheerleader accomplished the goal, as the cheerleader almost fell down, to the mad delight of the already frenzied crowd.

“Then it was kind of on,” Williams said.

Having watched all of this happen was the St. Cloud State mascot, Blizzard, and he decided to take matters into his own hands. His method of choice was to spear freshman defenseman Brandon Rogers with his stick as he skated off the ice, and in doing so, he had the whole Michigan team after him and took away any censorship that was left in the student section. But the Huskies paid for it once the game started.

Junior captain Jed Ortmeyer gave the crowd the blood they were looking for, knocking two St. Cloud players out of the game with clean hits.

“Maybe (it was) a little classless, but we all held two fingers up in the air to do like the goal count after he knocked the second guy out,” Williams said.

The Wolverines scored three first period goals and never looked back, winning the game 4-2. And the crowd never came down from the level it was at in the pregame warm-ups.

“I thought I heard this building the loudest it could go, but for a second in the second period, my head was hurting,” then-freshman forward Milan Gajic said after the game. “It was so loud it was unbelievable. Every time we did something, it erupted.”

The following night, the Wolverines had to win again, this time against top-seeded Denver. And without the benefit of a Molly-type incident to rile up the crowd, it still managed to deliver, helping Michigan to a 5-3 win.

“The next night it was Denver. It was the same thing,” Williams said. “I’ve been told you could hear the crowd from a block away.”

After the regional, Michigan was fined $10,000 for what was only described as “crowd control issues.” Whether it was what is now known as "The Molly Incident" or the profanity laden 'C-Ya! Chant' — which has been in the crowd's arsenal since before the Cornell series, adding the various curses to the end through the years — directed at an opposing player that goes to the penalty box, it wasn’t enough to stop the NCAA from awarding Michigan the regional the following year. Again, the Wolverines upset the No. 1 seed, this time Colorado College, to advance to the Frozen Four.

Berenson is 8-1 in regionals at Yost, with the lone loss coming in the first game against Cornell in 1991.

“I don’t know in any one of those three years (1998, 2002, 2003) if we could have beat that team — the teams we played against — either in a neutral site or definitely in their building,” Pearson said. “But because of the situation, the atmosphere, being in Yost, it really helped us get by those teams.”

Role Reversal

Nineteen years after they were taught how to watch the games, the Michigan crowd is now an integral part of the program's tradition.

As each class graduates, the next one comes in to uphold the tradition. Steve Shields, Jed Ortmeyer and Louie Caporusso are all linked by Michigan hockey. In a similar fashion, Matt Thullen, Tim Williams and Rob Eckert are linked as well. And Yost is the device through which the two lineages are bonded.

But changes still happen. In an age where a number of CCHA teams have stolen cheers from Michigan, the Yost student section continues to try to differentiate itself and keep moving forward.

As each new class comes, the evolution of the student section continues. Two years ago the opposing team was able to take the puck out of its zone on the power play without any added trouble from the crowd. Now, several thousand call out a high-pitched “wooooop!” as the puck is touched below the blue line.

Throughout the course of a season, several mean-spirited chants pop up in the middle of a game, and are never heard again.

“That’s one of (those) things that’s most fun about hockey games, because you can go there and you’ll start hearing things that you’ve never heard before,” Eckert said. “There’s always room where it’s open, always room where it’s changing and just because (of) the smaller nature of the student section, we do a lot more.”

In two decades, the student section has gone from copying others to relying on its spontaneity to differentiate itself, as it is now the one being copied. The band has gone from a small number of kids playing “just for fun” to a 92-member monstrosity. The fans have gone from not showing up to never leaving. Even through a four-game home losing streak this past season, Michigan’s worst since 1989, attendance averaged 6,800. Official capacity is 6,637.

“It’s always 0-0 and you go in with that mentality (that) the louder I cheer, the better they’re going to do,” Eckert said. “The mentality of the fans (is) we were there and we were there to support the Michigan boys and we’re always going to be there.”

That mentality, one that has been growing with every year of Michigan’s 20-year streak into the NCAA Tournament, was perhaps tested more than ever last season.

Finishing seventh in the CCHA and in jeopardy of halting their NCAA Tournament streak at 19, the Wolverines were forced to play No. 2 seed Michigan State in East Lansing in the second round of the conference tournament. With the Spartan students on spring break, the Children of Yost had tickets widely available to them.

As the Wolverines swept the best-of-three, the section behind the Michigan bench was packed with Maize and Blue.

“When we had all our fans there, it was kind of a slap in the face to them,” junior forward Louie Caporusso said two weeks ago. “It showed how much more we cared, and it really propelled our team to win those games.”

Michigan had finally done to Michigan State what had made Berenson so embarrassed in his early years in Ann Arbor — it had forced the Spartans to play a road game at home.

“It culminated in that,” Berenson said. “We have never had a home-ice advantage at Michigan State in all the years we’ve been here. You can just see there is so much momentum around this program that in a situation this past spring it showed up on the road.”

Early in game one, before the Wolverines pulled the first of four upsets to win the conference tournament and extend their NCAA Tournament streak, the Michigan section used its hallmark of recent years and belted out one of its impromptu cheers. It was a simple, but effective, statement directed at the Spartan student section.

“WE CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

After that chant, there was one more thing that reminded Berenson of his early days at the helm: silence. It was like a big cave. The revival off the ice had completed.