KALAMAZOO — With under two minutes to go and the Michigan hockey team (3-2-1) trailing by two goals against No. 18 Western Michigan (2-3-1), sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann skated to his team’s bench to give the Wolverines an extra man on the attack. Soon after, the Broncos’ student section motioned toward the empty net and filled the rink with taunts of “better goalie.”
To say this particular frame had a significant impact on the final result is baseless. The game was already out of Michigan’s grasp, sparing late game magic. That said, it depicts the bigger picture of the night — that playing in Lawson Ice Arena can turn everything sideways.
In the week of practice leading up to the series the Wolverines were well aware Saturday night’s tilt could come with a challenging environment, some even referring to it as a “rowdy spot.” But that prior understanding didn’t prevent events from unfolding as they did.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly to what extent the environment affected the game, and that answer will vary greatly coming from spectators and Michigan personnel. But there was certainly some level of influence from the moment the game began. This appeared to startle the Wolverines, and they found themselves down two goals in the first few minutes.
“Just the slow start can impact the game, especially with that crowd,” said senior defenseman Luke Martin. “It’s a good home team. Tough place to play, but we take that on ourselves. If we come out with a better start it’s a totally different game.”
The crowd targeted the game through multiple channels. For instance, after Mann gave up his first goal the students shouted his name repeatedly to mess with him, and they did this many more times. This appeared to at least somewhat rattle him, as later in the game he looked shaky when collecting a loose puck and nearly gave up an easy goal.
Freshman defenseman Cam York was another victim, and he was constantly singled out when on the ice. When Michigan got called for penalties, students often yelled “cheater.” With the students seated directly behind the penalty box, some resorted to a more hands-on approach. They pried at the corner of the box, separating the sheets of glass mere millimeters because that was enough to send discouraging words.
With this being the first road game of the season, it was the first time playing in such a hostile environment for some of the youngsters.
“I think they handled it really well,” Martin said of the youth’s control of the atmosphere. “But I don’t think we did a good enough job as upperclassmen showing them what it takes to have a good start, and it starts in the locker room.”
The Wolverines committed a season-high seven penalties against Western Michigan. Some of those were easily avoidable, such as when senior forward Will Lockwood got called for interference early in the final frame. Lockwood had been roughed up a bit near Michigan’s net, but there was no call. As the play went on, he skated into the neutral zone and elbowed a guy near the head. Penalties like that, potentially a result of the hostile environment, made it hard for the Wolverines to come back.
The intensity of the crowd created for an extra physical affair. It was the type of game where if you turned away for a second, you could look back to guys fallen down, loose helmets and scraps.
The crowd even got Pearson’s attention. As he walked back onto the ice following the first intermission the students started booing, so he looked right at them, pumped his fists emphatically and pointed to the ‘block M’ on his sweater. He then stepped onto Michigan’s bench and took a bow toward the student section.
“It’s a great environment,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “I’m just trying to get them riled up a little bit. You could see they get going, and you want to play in this environment. I was just promoting Michigan to them.”
It’s unclear whether the hostile environment was the root cause of the Wolverines’ difficulties. But the end result indicates atmosphere and context matter, and Michigan will need to grow accustomed to such places for better results.
“It’s a good learning lesson for our team,” Pearson said. “What they need to do to prepare to play in a tough environment against a tough team against a good team and a physical game, we haven’t played in that kind of game like that yet all year, and it was on the edge of out of control, but you’re going to have to play in those games.”