In his USA Hockey National Team Development Program days, Grant Gabriele was emphatically circling the date of his most-anticipated game — the team’s exhibition match against Michigan.

Now a Division I athlete, little has changed, except a higher level and a bigger stage.

The Ohio State defenseman grew up in Brighton, Mich. with a dream. At age 17, he was set to be a full-time player for the USNTDP after a brief stint on the Under-17 team as a part-time reserve. He had hoped to be more involved with the Under-18 team, and when he received the call-up, it was a moment of fulfillment.

Settling in Ann Arbor, the city where the team played in before moving to Plymouth in 2015, he stepped on grounds that he had been involved with his entire life.

When Gabriele was nine, he welcomed a new kid on the block. It was Jon Merrill, who went on to play three years for the Wolverines and currently plays for the Las Vegas Golden Knights. But at the time, for Gabriele, he was just his friend. Despite the five-year age gap, the two would hang out, even before Gabriele found out Merrill was a hockey player

Around the time he moved to Brighton, Merrill became the youngest player to commit to an NCAA hockey team. It was none other than the school the two had grown around: Michigan. Two years later, Merrill took the next step in his progression as a player and moved to Ann Arbor to be part of the USNTDP, paving a path for Gabriele to follow.

When Gabriele got his call up, it was Merrill that he went to for advice, asking about the experience and how to approach being a full-time player.

“It’s funny how our routes kinda ended being the same with USA and Big Ten college,” Gabriele said.

Merrill had raved about the amount of fun he had over those two years, but Gabriele spent only one year there before moving forward to different United States Hockey League teams, with brief stints at Omaha, Chicago and Muskegon. His year with the U18, however, wasn’t wasted. He ended the season with four goals and twelve assists for sixteen total points. But in the midst of the season was a much-anticipated matchup.

An exhibition game doesn’t mean much. It doesn’t count in terms of standings. Both teams hold out players. But for many, like Gabriele, playing Michigan was always circled on their calendars.

“It’s always seems like some USA guys end up going to Michigan because of the location,” Gabriele said. “So it’s always a big matchup because of the kids going there, and the kids on the team.”

Michigan had five USNTDP alums on roster at the time, some of whom had been in the program as recent as the year before. The game itself wasn’t a pretty picture for USNTDP. Losing 7-4, the team snapped a two-year win streak against the Wolverines in its worst loss against Michigan in over a decade.

Eventually, Gabriele left the program. But despite the experiences in juniors leading him toward Michigan, he gravitated toward Ohio State — a sentiment he often shared with Merrill.

“I was still in juniors so I always told him I was a fan of Ohio State,” Gabriele said. “And he would always kind of gave me a little crap about it because he was going to Michigan.”

During his stay with the Waterloo Blackhawks, he made up his mind. Having previously committed to Western Michigan, Gabriele decided the Buckeyes were the best course of action for his dream to be in the National Hockey League.

A “no-brainer” decision for him, Gabriele committed to Ohio State, believing it was the best chance to make his dreams a reality. He didn’t see any action his freshman year but worked himself into the rotation his current sophomore year. Just like before, to him, the Michigan matchup — this weekend — meant a little more.

“The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry in hockey has been pretty intense,” Gabriele said. “So when we see that on the schedule, it always gets people going. It’s just kind of a big game people look for and a fun one. Just a lot of intensity and the tension between the two teams are pretty crazy.”

And again, just like before, he made sure a certain date on his calendar was circled.

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