The morning air chills the body as a parent and child make the walk from the warmth of their car to the frosty atmosphere of the ice rink. Children suit up and take the ice, and parents gather together with warm drinks in hand – the steam rising up into their nostrils and waking them up.
Children playing hockey at 6 a.m. This is hockey in Michigan. Old-school hockey.
In four days, various hockey organizations – including the CCHA – will host “Hockey Day in Michigan” – an event celebrating the state’s most popular sport.
“If it gets the proper exposure, it could be great,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “It’s good to recognize the grassroots part of hockey. That’s the part I enjoy the most.”
The state of Michigan has been a hockey hotbed since the 1950s. It currently has “70,000 registered players, coaches and officials, and nearly 5,000 registered teams with USA Hockey,” according to a promotional page on the CCHA website. Those numbers are the highest of any state in the nation.
Fifteen of the Wolverines’ 26 players are in-staters, including alternate captain Brandon Kaleniecki. The Livonia native enjoyed growing up playing hockey in Michigan and even remembers his first moments on the ice, playing for a Dearborn team at age five.
“My two older brothers started the year before me,” Kaleniecki said. “So, I was pretty excited to start playing. We watched a couple of Red Wings games and played a little street hockey, and I just wanted to play.”
As a child, Kaleniecki could barely skate up and down the ice, an ability that opponents wish he still lacked. But according to him, he was the only child that could lift the puck. That allowed Kaleniecki to score early and often, negating his skating deficiency.
“I scored in my first game,” Kaleniecki said with a smile. “That was my best memory of (my first year). I wasn’t a very good skater – I also remember that. All I could do was shoot the puck. I just shot it as high as I could, and the goalies couldn’t reach above their head or anything.”
His transformation from a slow and awkward five-year-old to an alternate captain for one of the nation’s most storied college hockey programs is just one example of the triumphs that “Hockey Day in Michigan” hopes to celebrate.
During the day-long event, hockey rinks across the state will host their own activities. Along with local celebration, Fox Sports Net will provide statewide exposure of the event – culminating with Michigan’s matchup against Michigan State at 7:35 p.m. at Joe Louis Arena.
Berenson doesn’t mind the TV exposure, but he admits that it can be a double-edged sword. Even though it allows recruits and alumni to follow Michigan hockey, at season’s end, the team will have played in a record 22 televised games. And Berenson is not a fan of TV timeouts interrupting the flow of the game.
“They don’t stop NASCAR (for commercials),” Berenson said. “You don’t stop a sport that is a continuous sport. (They can) find innovative ways to put the commercials in. I don’t think we should be stopping hockey.”
The day’s festivities will give the sport even more exposure in Michigan, which could be a base for the sport to become bigger nationally.
While thousands of people will enjoy themselves at rinks across the state on Saturday, it will still be the parents standing by the rink on those cold mornings that show the true spirit of the game.