Eight thousand, four hundred and eleven people filed their way into Yost Ice Arena back on January 29th, 1988. It was the highest attendance for a single hockey game in the building’s history.
At the time, maximum capacity for Yost was listed as 8,100. But Michigan State was rolling in from East Lansing, and no one wanted to miss it. So, an extra 311 people crammed their way into one of college ice hockey’s most traditional buildings for a genuine in-state rivalry showdown.
Due to multiple renovations over the years, Yost’s capacity has decreased to 5,800. The average number of attendees for the 2015-16 season was 5,457 — a far cry from 8,411, but enough to topple over a 90% attendance rate.
Sophomore defenseman Nicholas Boka can attest to that kind of atmosphere after last weekend’s matchup against the Spartans.
“I keep using the word special, but it’s really special,” Boka said. “Seeing a huge crowd the other night playing Michigan State when we’re a .500 team. … It’s definitely an honor to play here.”
Established in 1923 as a multi-purpose athletic facility, the Fielding H. Yost Field House was originally home to an eight-lane running track, a portable basketball court and a winter practice facility for the baseball and football teams — all while leaving room for 7,500 spectators. It also provided locker room space and conditioning facilities to the football teams of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler.
This was the facility Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson remembers during his first few visits to Yost.
“I was in school, and I came to a track meet. It was an indoor track meet and Tom Robinson was a runner,” said Berenson. “He was a friend of mine; he was from the Bahamas. He broke the world record for the 60-yard dash indoors here, at the time. …And then I came to a basketball game here. I actually came for a baseball tryout my freshman year, might’ve been the first time I was in the building. They gave us an old ball to play catch with and that was about the extent of the tryout.”
About 10 years later, the Fielding H. Yost Field House began converting into an ice arena. It maintained most of the original architectural aspects, including the recognizable grand windows and drafty ceiling.
Consistently referred to as a “barn,” the hockey facility boasts an incredible record since its transition to a rink in 1973. Not including the current season, 819 games have been played at Yost Ice Arena, and holds a win-loss-tie record of 570-209-40. Attendance peaked during 2003-04 season, when 148,124 people made their way into Yost to watch Michigan play hockey.
Yet, more incredibly, over four million people have attended Yost during its 43 seasons as a hockey arena.
“I had no idea what it would turn out to be because it wasn’t built for hockey,” Berenson said. “When I first saw it — I think I played an exhibition game here with the Red Wings when I was with Detroit — and we played in here, it was like, ‘Gee, this is alright.’ And then it went from there. I came back as a coach and this looks like a hockey building right away.
“It’s become one of the iconic hockey buildings now. It’s not going to be here forever, but it’s been here for nearly forever.”
For many, the past 43 seasons of Michigan hockey at Yost have been tradition. For Boka, it’s where he and his family sat, year after year, watching the Wolverines pass pucks around on the ice. It’s even where he asked to have his birthday party as a kid.
Now, Boka is one of those guys out on the ice.
“It was always a dream of mine to play hockey here,” Boka said. “I mean, I grew up going to Michigan games. For that birthday, I got a Michigan penalty box that my grandpa built me. It’s pretty cool to look back on as a kid, just growing up and watching all those guys you see on the wall out there.
“(The first time I played hockey at Yost) was pretty surreal. I looked up in the stands where we had our old season tickets, and to think that I was once a little kid sitting there watching guys and thinking one day I would play here. I’ve got so many memories here as a kid. It was very special.”
The same goes for freshman forward Will Lockwood. A second generation Michigan hockey player, and third generation Wolverine, Lockwood had always been a Michigan fan.
Like Boka, Lockwood is now on the ice after a childhood of spectating. And even though he spent so much of his time at Yost watching hockey games, nothing compared to his own first game.
“It was incredible, it was better than I ever expected it to be,” Lockwood said. “I always knew what the environment was like, but actually being on the ice and playing in the game was on a whole different level. … You have some of the best fans in college hockey and one of the best rinks in college hockey. So putting the two together makes for one of the best environments.”
Throughout the past 43 seasons, Yost has bred an environment that is complementary to college hockey. And many have found their way into the National Hockey League, like Dylan Larkin and Luke Glendening for the Detroit Red Wings, or Zach Werenski for the Columbus Blue Jackets. And even more have found positions in the American Hockey League and East Coast Hockey League.
And they all have something in common — a barn in Ann Arbor.
“There’s history to these old buildings. Minnesota had an old building before they built the new Mariucci, and it was a great old building, just like Yost,” Berenson said. “Wisconsin had an old building they used to play in, the Dane County Colosseum. These were buildings that were known all over the college hockey community. It could be traditional buildings, and that’s what Yost is, it’s a traditional building. It’s not one of the new, nicest and glitziest rinks like North Dakota is, or some of those other new rinks that are really nice.
“But this has an atmosphere, this has a feeling in it that’s special, and you can’t replace it with a new building.”