A rivalry not just reserved for the gridiron

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By Jeremy Summitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 25, 2014

It’s ‘Ohio’ week in February.

The hype of a Saturday in late November might not be swirling around Ann Arbor and Columbus, but the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is still held to a high standard on the ice.

The Wolverines have finished ahead of the Buckeyes in the conference standings for each of the past 10 seasons and hold a 72-33-11 edge since the first game was played between the two schools on Feb. 8, 1964. Records and a lopsided difference in program prestige might not point to a heated rivalry, but everything else does.

“It’s a big game between two rival schools, and you feel that out on the ice,” said senior defenseman Mac Bennett. “People are making that extra effort or fighting a little bit more to get that puck, and they’re exciting games to play in.”

Take the 2004 CCHA championship, for example.

Michigan and Ohio State came into the conference tournament sitting in first and fourth, respectively. The Buckeyes were tired after playing Thursday, Friday and now against their arch-rivals in the tournament’s title game Saturday. But the Wolverines came out flat, and after conceding three second-period goals, stumbled toward a front-row seat to Ohio State’s first CCHA championship since 1972.

The next season, in 2004-05, Michigan finished atop the conference with the Buckeyes close behind. No matchups could particularly be classified as an upset, but those contests provoked a sincere hostility between the two sides due to their competitiveness. Three years later, Ohio State put an end to the Wolverines’ 12-game winning streak despite finishing in 11th place in the CCHA.

Michigan coach Red Berenson said the construction of Value City Arena — the current home of Ohio State basketball and men’s hockey programs — in 2000 ignited the hockey program’s relevance on a more national scale. Previously, the Buckeyes played in a rink that held 1,700 people and hardly resembled a place that supported Division I athletics.

“It was too bad, but it was a disgrace to Ohio for them to have to play Division I hockey in that rink,” Berenson said. “They got a new rink, and that was a shining star for them.”

Since the opening of Value City Arena, it’d be fair to say Ohio State’s increased relevance has created its benefits for the Wolverines, too.

Senior forward Derek DeBlois remembers struggling through a seven-game losing streak during his sophomore season. With a weekend series with Ohio State looming, the Wolverines desperately needed a way out of a massive sinkhole. That time, the Buckeyes were ranked No. 2 in the nation, but DeBlois and company outscored their rivals 8-1 over the weekend.

“I think it was the most packed it’s been since we’ve played there,” DeBlois said. “Then the following game was the outdoor game (at Progressive Field in Cleveland, Ohio), and that kind of turned around our whole season, so it was an exciting time. It was awesome that it was Ohio State and it was there, so it was a great feeling and great for our team.”

Berenson credits the increased television exposure from the Big Ten Network and the conference schedule as keys to igniting the rivalry even more. With teams vying for the same recruits, bragging rights and championships, rivalries become inevitable. The first matchup of this season between the two schools marked the start of Big Ten hockey, and it hardly disappointed.

“You saw the outpouring support when they played here the first time we played them,” Bennett said. “Sold-out barn, went into overtime, that place was nuts.”

It was quite the spectacle. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney was in attendance alongside 5,800 fans who were well aware of what a matchup between Michigan and Ohio State should entail. Most left satisfied, too, after sophomore forward Andrew Copp’s winning goal in overtime. The following Monday in Columbus held equally high expectations, and Bennett proved to be the hero this time when he netted a game-winner in the final minutes of the third period.

“The losing team always feels it’s a bigger rivalry than the winning team,” said senior forward Luke Moffatt. “Just because it hurts so much more to lose than it feels good to win.”

When these teams meet this weekend, there’s no reason to expect any different sentiment.