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Liz Vukelich: Outdoor game brings hockey back to its roots

Erin Kirkland/Daily
Michigan coach Red Berenson has led his team to a 2-1-1 record in outdoor games. Buy this photo

By Liz Vukelich, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 16, 2012

CLEVELAND — There was a lot of talk in the months leading up to the Frozen Diamond Faceoff. It wasn’t supposed to be just a hockey game — it was so much more.

It was the first outdoor hockey game in the state of Ohio. It was a hockey game in a major league ballpark where a crowd of up to 43,000 people would come and watch two rival programs duke it out. It became an event.

A 200-foot-long snow-tube hill and a skating loop constructed in the outfield made it a fan experience. Michigan and Ohio State fans alike could watch their team practice before heading inside for a meet-and-greet autograph session.

Michigan coach Red Berenson called the Frozen Diamond Faceoff a “spectacle,” different from any outdoor game he had ever coached in before, including the Big Chill. The Ohio State players were in awe after their first outdoor experience on a national stage — Buckeye forward Chris Crane said that even though the loss stung, the atmosphere was unforgettable.

But in the end, none of this — the records, fireworks and fanfare — actually matters.

When all was said and done — after Michigan walked away with a 4-1 win over the Buckeyes and a giant trophy to prove it — the players aren’t going to remember the play that put the game in the bag, nor any mistakes.

For the Wolverines, this weekend was all about returning to their roots.

From the moment Michigan stepped onto the rink on Saturday afternoon for their first skate, all the players could talk about how cool the environment was. Everyone — from wide-eyed freshman Alex Guptill to seasoned outdoor-game veteran Luke Glendening — took time to just appreciate the game.

They were playing hockey the way it was supposed to be played — outdoors, with temperatures just below freezing and ice surrounded by freshly fallen snow that the team had to shovel off the rink Sunday morning.

Most of the team can share stories about playing pond hockey. For any player, skating outside is about as untarnished as it gets. There’s no Zamboni smoothing the ice or fancy locker room to warm up in afterward — it becomes purely about the love of the game.

Maybe it was the environment, or maybe it was because the Wolverines came into Sunday’s game riding a wave of momentum. Whatever the cause, the outdoor setting rubbed off on Michigan, and they started to play hockey the way it’s supposed to be played by them — throwback Michigan hockey.

The grittiness and toughness of that throwback hockey has worked for Michigan since it became a varsity program 90 years ago. It’s how Berenson paved his way from Regina to Ann Arbor, and how the Wolverines brought nine national championship trophies back to Yost Ice Arena.

But at some point earlier this season, Michigan forgot about that kind of hockey. They came off a trip to the Frozen Four championship game season and were No. 1 on the eve of CCHA play in October.

Perhaps the hype was just too much for them, and they suffered for it — a seven-game winless streak spanning the month of November taught them that. But something changed for the team starting in December.

They went to Alaska and found themselves amid the ice and snow. Heart conquered the hype. The team went back to throwback Michigan hockey. It worked, and came full circle for them in the snowy outfield of Progressive Field.

“Our presence is the best it’s been all year,” Berenson said. “If you saw our team a month ago, we weren’t good. It’s tough to win … in this league.”

It starts with the forward units, which have become more productive and opportunistic. Scrappy goals have become the norm for the offensive lines, and the Frozen Diamond Faceoff was no different. Chris Brown capitalized on a rebound off of the Buckeye goaltender to find the back of the net and David Wohlberg muscled his way through defenders to put the game in the bag for Michigan.

The forwards aren’t scared anymore. They’re not afraid to slam into the boards or opponents to go after loose pucks. They didn’t notice the fireworks lighting up the Cleveland skyline or Ohio State’s band marching on the ice — it was all about the game.

With the forwards providing the offensive drive, the defense’s job becomes much easier — they easily stifled the Buckeye offense on Sunday.

“The biggest thing (is) everyone’s taking pride in their job in the defensive zone,” said senior Greg Pateryn of the defense's turnaround. “We’ve finally realized stuff on the offense will take care of itself, and we leave that to the forwards.”

It took a whole semester for the Wolverines to learn their lesson. The losses were a serious wake-up call and now the team knows what it takes to walk away with a victory.

Michigan fans won't care about the fanfare of the Frozen Diamond Faceoff. But they'll remember two things — an afternoon spent watching hockey outside and a team that played with spunk to pull out a win.

— Vukelich can be reached at elizavuk@umich.edu or on Twitter @LizVukelich


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