Looking back, eight years later, on the biggest hockey game ever played

Friday, January 4, 2019 - 4:38am

Before coming to Michigan, Max Shuart and Niko Porikos played for Victory Honda, a AAA team, at the Big House.

Before coming to Michigan, Max Shuart and Niko Porikos played for Victory Honda, a AAA team, at the Big House. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Niko Porikos

A year before Michigan Stadium set a record by holding 104,173 screaming hockey fans, and more than eight years before Michigan and Notre Dame drop the puck at Notre Dame Stadium this Saturday, the prospect of Michigan successfully holding the “Big Chill at the Big House” against Michigan State was, quite literally, on thin ice.

The Wolverines had just played Wisconsin in the Camp Randall Classic a year prior. Though that 3-2 Wisconsin win was, by all means, a quality hockey game, it was rife with logistical problems. At puck drop, the temperature hovered around 10 degrees, causing the ice to chip and become brittle, especially around both teams’ creases.

In order to have a successful outdoor game at the Big House, there were a lot of things had to fall into place. Would there be enough time to set up the rink after football season? Was there an ice company that could handle such a large scale project? How could they guarantee the biggest and best crowd possible, after Wisconsin only drew about 40,000 fans?

For a school with the raw fan power and funding that Michigan had, those things did not end up being a problem. Former Michigan hockey SID Matt Trevor noted that tickets to the Big Chill were intentionally made cheap — around 15 to 20 dollars each — to attract varying levels of hockey fans and set the record for the biggest hockey game ever. Regardless, the Wolverines were still at the mercy of mother nature no matter what.

“The year before this game, before we announced we were sending out people, there were people that actually went to Michigan Stadium and stood at different parts of the field to see what the sunlight was like at different times of the day,” Trevor said. “You get all different kinds of glare, and that can melt the ice.”

Fortunately, when Michigan started the game around 3:00 p.m. the weather was perfect. It was not blisteringly cold to the point where the ice would crack like at Camp Randall, but not sunny enough either to the point where the ice starts to melt as it did in 2015 when the two teams faced off again at Soldier Field in Chicago.

“They had the ice in nearly a week in advance,” said former Michigan coach Red Berenson. “So we got to practice on it at least four times and got comfortable. If anyone had any concerns they were gone, because the week was good and the weather as good. We got a break in the weather because a day later we had an awful storm.

“... It's funny, it was a treat when I was young, a treat to play indoors because we played a lot of our games outdoors. And now it's come full circle, it's a treat to play outdoors because we play all of our games indoors. But I really enjoy it. I never dreamt when I came to Michigan as a student that we would see Michigan stadium filled and playing hockey in that stadium.”

Berenson, Trevor and the athletic department took advantage of that opportune window of weather and turned the rink into a community experience centered around Michigan Hockey, hosting many different skating and hockey events in the rink before the game. As a senior in high school at the time, former Michigan forward Niko Porikos benefitted from that first hand.

Before skating under the cavernous roof of Yost Ice Arena, Porikos got one of his first tastes of Wolverine hockey in the shadows of the 90-plus rows of seats at the Big House. While playing for Victory Honda, a AAA team, Porikos took the ice with some other notable future Michigan hockey players — Max Shuart, Tony Calderone, Cutler Martin and Chad Catt.

“Just being in that bowl atmosphere, knowing the awesome players that play in that arena … that was the coolest game I've played in outside of the ones I've played in a Michigan sweater,” Porikos said.

Shortly after that game, Shuart committed to Michigan. Martin followed the year after, Porikos sometime later, and Calderone, who was originally planning to play at Princeton, flipped to the Wolverines. Though the game certainly had a lot of logistical obstacles in its way, Porikos and company’s commitments, the unique feeling of hockey community and everything about that record-breaking day remains.

Eight years later, the Big Chill still holds the record for the highest attendance at a hockey game. Even putting the scoreline aside — Michigan beat Michigan State, 5-0, that day — those apart of the experience widely consider it a triumph for the program, and perhaps not the last of its kind.

“(The Big Chill) was such a success that I think people would fill out the Big House, and if they play a worthy opponent, and their fans come, it would be a great experience for everyone,” Berenson said. “... It would be a great experience for the players and a great experience for the fans.

“I'm not saying make plans for it, that's not my decision. But I'm sure some people have been talking about it.”