Nine years after The Cold War, Michigan and Michigan State to face off in The Big Chill

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By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Writer
Published December 8, 2010

As a captain of the No. 12 Michigan hockey team, senior forward Carl Hagelin thinks his expertise playing outdoors could prove valuable when the Wolverines play host to Michigan State in The Big Chill at the Big House on Saturday.

Growing up with the good fortune of having a lake located behind his home in Sodertalje, Sweden, Hagelin may have the most pond-hockey experience on the roster.

Hagelin estimates that the largest crowd he ever played before at an outdoor game in Sweden was made up of 55 people. But his pond obviously didn’t seat 109,901 like Michigan Stadium does.

“You feel like a kid again,” Hagelin said Monday of stepping onto the Big House ice for the first time. “You love the game so much, and when you come out of the tunnel, you love it even more. Everyone is taken back to when they were a young kid, skating on the pond.”

Although much of the Michigan team (8-3-1-0 CCHA, 9-5-4 overall) participated in the Camp Randall Classic showdown against Wisconsin in February, the Big Chill will be unlike anything the sport has ever witnessed. With more than 110,000 tickets sold, the rivalry game is expected to shatter every hockey attendance record.

“We get a chance to play in what is the biggest game for my recent tenure, and once again, it’s a game that’s going to be magical,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said.

But the Big Chill is merely a sequel to another in-state titan clash between the Spartans and Wolverines, which happened on Oct. 6, 2001 at Spartan Stadium: the Cold War. And without the Cold War matchup, hockey may never have come to the gridiron of Michigan Stadium.

The Cold War was the first outdoor college hockey game in history, and it served as the precursor that set the stage for hockey’s return to the outdoors.

The pioneering project began with several Michigan State officials and the idea to pit two teams against each other in the confines of the Spartans’ 74,000-seat football stadium. Although the proposal was disregarded for years, it finally gained an advocate in Michigan State Athletic Director Mark Hollis.

“We did a lot of homework, did a lot of research and started the process,” Hollis said in a press conference on Monday. “We actually announced it before we knew if we could indeed pull it off.

“When we did it, I kind of equate it to the Apollo versus the space shuttle — it’s a heck of a lot easier now with the technology they have in place.”

Compared to today's more sophisticated method of creating an outdoor rink, Hollis’ approach was archaic.

“When we executed the plan, it was basically a refrigeration system from Hollywood that chills the movie studios,” Hollis said. “We sort of (made a) makeshift ice rink out of that kind of system.”

Hollis didn’t need to look far to find the perfect opponent for the top-ranked Spartans. Just 65 miles away, No. 4 Michigan was ready for a battle on the pond.

When the week of the game arrived, temperatures boosted into high 70s, leaving the game in jeopardy. Rain and winds on Friday deterred the Wolverines from even getting a chance to practice on the ice before gameday. But on Saturday morning, temperatures took a nosedive, leaving the ice in perfect condition for the evening game under the lights at Spartan Stadium.

As the seats filled with a world-record crowd of 74,544, the teams emerged from the tunnel and took the ice. Then-Michigan goalie and current goaltender coach Josh Blackburn described stepping onto the field as “almost a religious experience.”

Then-junior forward Michael Cammalleri wrote in an e-mail interview with the Daily earlier this week that the Cold War was like playing “on a pond in front of the whole world.”

Through the first 59 minutes of the game, the Wolverines were propelled by Cammalleri, who convinced Berenson to play him despite sustaining a hip injury earlier. Cammalleri was unstoppable in the Cold War, racking up two goals and an assist to put Michigan ahead, 3-2, late in the third period.

But three periods weren’t enough to satisfy the record-setting crowd.

With less than half a minute remaining and Spartan goaltender Ryan Miller pulled for the extra attacker, Cammalleri had the puck stripped from him in the defensive zone, and Spartan freshman Jim Slater beat Blackburn glove-side to knot the game.

In college hockey’s introduction to the limelight, it seemed appropriate that the teams skated to a 3-3 draw, leaving the conclusion of the Cold War in limbo.

“It’s only going to add to the rivalry,” Miller said in a postgame interview. “We’re only going to want to get at (Michigan) even more.”

But it took nine years before the Spartans and the Wolverines would reunite outdoors.

According to Michigan associate coach Mel Pearson, talks of bringing the rivalry to Michigan Stadium began immediately following the Cold War game.

“I think that was one of the first things we talked about in the week after the game,” Pearson said. “We can’t have Michigan State have that (attendance) record.”

Added Berenson: “We talked whether that could happen here. … It wasn’t for me to say we should have a game here. It was for me to say that I definitely would support it if it ever comes to that, where the field conditions or scheduling and everything falls into place, then I would support it 100 percent.”

But due to the natural grass surface at the Big House, a meeting in Ann Arbor seemed unlikely. And when Spartan Stadium’s turf was replaced with natural grass in 2002, hope of a rematch severely dwindled.

Meanwhile, the impact of the Cold War elsewhere was clearly visible. Other hockey leagues, including the NHL, began to host outdoor games on a regular basis.

In November of 2003, the Edmonton Oilers hosted the Montreal Canadians in the Heritage Classic, which stood as the league’s first-ever regulation outdoor game.

Over the next few years, outdoor games ceased to be a rarity in the United States. Ohio State and Wisconsin battled in the Frozen Tundra Holiday Classic at Lambeau Field in 2006, and the NHL began a tradition of hosting a Winter Classic matchup every New Year’s Day in 2008.

In January, the Michigan Athletic Department announced its finalized plans to host the Big Chill at the Big House — the long-awaited rematch between the Wolverines and the Spartans. Not surprisingly, the Big House — the largest football stadium in the nation — sold out quickly.

Berenson believes that “90 to 95 percent” of the packed house will be Michigan supporters, suggesting that Michigan State had to send back some of its allotted tickets because of the high demand in Ann Arbor. And this time, the clash isn’t between two of the nation's top-ranked teams.

Regardless, the Wolverines will certainly have their hands full on Saturday.

“It’s going to be a great game,” Michigan State coach Rick Comley said on Monday. “You always throw the records out when you play Michigan in any sport.”

Comley added that he isn’t trying to block out the immensity of the game, but rather “let (his players) enjoy it. ... It’s going to dominate their thoughts.”

He joked about busing the Spartans (3-7-1, 6-8-3) to a public skate session at the Big House just to ensure that the only cold feet they get is because of the bitter cold forecasted on Saturday.

“It would be nice to get (the players) into the building and let them look around and stargaze for awhile,” Comley said.

Ultimately, the game does factor into the CCHA standings as a regular-season, three-point matchup, but everyone involved knows it’s much more than that — it’s putting college hockey on center stage.

“This game is with our arch-rival Michigan State,” senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick said on Monday. “We’re going to break records. I don’t think anyone has ever played a game of this magnitude, inside or outside.”