Wolverines set for homecoming in the Big Apple
The game itself has enough hype around it already.
The Michigan hockey team will battle the Nittany Lions for a crucial position in the Big Ten standings, as both teams are currently tied for second place in the conference.
But this weekend, the city that never sleeps will play host to Wolverines, adding even more of an aura around Michigan’s matchup. The Wolverines will complete their series against Penn State in Madison Square Garden for the Big Ten Super Saturday — an event in which the two schools’ basketball teams will also square off.
To add more drama to the contest, Penn State has been largely responsible for keeping the Wolverines out of the NCAA Tournament for the past two years. The Nittany Lions handed Michigan two ugly losses just before the Big Ten Tournament last year, knocking them out of the conference tournament in the first round with a 2-1 overtime win the year before that.
The stage can’t get much bigger, as the Wolverines will take the ice in one of the most historic arenas in sports.
But for a number of Michigan’s players, the opportunity will be a little more special.
“Some of the guys, it’ll be a good homecoming-type event for them, going back out east,” said junior forward Tyler Motte. “I’ve never been there. I know our class and the guys under us haven’t played in many events quite like this. It’s a new thing for the Big Ten as well, having the back-to-back here with basketball and hockey, which I think will be good for the conference.
“I think it’ll be something that (the Big Ten will) be able to turn to in the next couple years — playing two sports in the same day. I think that’s something that really could separate the Big Ten from other conferences.”
Five Wolverines are among the group that will be returning home.
Senior forward Justin Selman — an Upper Saddle River, N.J., native — isn’t far off from the Empire State.
Senior goaltender Steve Racine is from Williamsville, N.Y., and spent the summer interning on Wall Street.
Freshman defenseman Joseph Cecconi calls Youngstown, N.Y., his home, and junior defenseman Kevin Lohan hails from Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island.
Senior forward Cristoval ‘Boo’ Nieves is from Baldwinsville, but the contest will hold even more weight given that he has been in the New York Rangers’ system since being selected 59th overall in the 2012 draft.
Even Michigan coach Red Berenson has spent his fair share of time in the Big Apple, playing 49 games for the Rangers in 1966 and 1967.
But the Wolverines’ seasoned leader is more enthusiastic about the opportunity it provides his players. To him, it’s more important for the team to gain experience in rinks that foster environments similar to what they may face in the future, whether it be in the National Hockey League or NCAA Championship games.
“The game in New York will be important for (Selman and Nieves),” Berenson said. “But they had that when they were freshmen, too. When you have these games, you really need to take advantage of them. Hopefully, it really jumpstarts both of them. They’ve both played well, but I’d like to see this be like a coming-out game for them.”
The last time Michigan entered the Garden was Nov. 24, 2012, when the Wolverines suffered a 5-1 dismantling at the hands of then-No. 13 Cornell.
The crowd favored the locally favorited Big Red that day, but that advantage may sway in Michigan’s favor this go around — at least according to the East Coast players.
“I think my parents ended up buying — on my mom’s side — almost like 50 tickets,” Selman said. “My family has a suite at (Madison Square Garden), so I think they filled that up, and then probably bought a couple more too, so it should be close to 100 people.”
Added Lohan: “There will be a lot of people — friends, family, family friends. It should be a good weekend.”
No one was willing to claim the title of team tour guide for the little, if any, downtime the Wolverines get in the city, but Nieves suggested splitting the team in four between himself, Selman, Lohan and Racine.
Lohan echoed the sentiment, explaining that each New York native has their own go-to spots.
But Nieves couldn’t pinpoint the one place he would take his group if given the time.
“I can’t name one,” Nieves said. “There’s just too many good brunch and bagel places to name one.”
And on fitting the New York bagel snob stereotype: “Oh yeah, you have to be.”
So while Michigan will miss the Children of Yost during Thursday’s matchup in State College, the Wolverines may have a different fan section to fill the role Saturday.