BOWLING GREEN –
Saturday night was a stark reminder of something that every Michigan athlete must remember any time they go on the road.
It means a lot to beat Michigan, especially on your home ice.
This desire to send the Wolverines packing is magnified in ice hockey, where Michigan is part of the CCHA rather than the Big Ten. Instead of facing just Michigan State and Ohio State, where the rivalry is intense regardless of the sport, Michigan also faces off with teams like Bowling Green, Alaska-Fairbanks, Northern Michigan and Miami (Ohio).
Normally, these teams don’t have a shot to beat Michigan. They’re part of mid-major Division I conferences like the MAC (Miami (Ohio) and Bowling Green) or even Division II (Northern Michigan). Although MAC football teams have come closer and closer to their Big Ten counterparts in recent years, the Wolverines have rarely been challenged by a mid-major opponent. The same goes for field hockey, track and field and other sports in which Michigan perennially contends for conference and national titles.
So when a school like Bowling Green has an opportunity to compete with Michigan in ice hockey, the team will certainly do its darndest not to let its opportunity to beat the evil empire pass – which is precisely what transpired on Saturday.
The speed and talent discrepancy between Michigan and Bowling Green is significant, as evidenced by the Wolverines’ 6-1 drubbing of the Falcons in Ann Arbor on Friday. But once the series headed to Bowling Green, there was no tentative defense and weak offense. There was a simple desire to finish the series with a victory.
Right off the bat, the tone of the game was different than Friday. On Friday, junior T.J. Hensick darted around the Falcons to net an absolutely filthy – there is no better word than filthy – goal, but there was no chance of that on Saturday. Every time a Michigan player touched the puck, there was a white jersey on him, slamming him into the boards. And as the Falcons’ fans cheered at the top of their lungs for each of the hits, they got increasingly harder.
And sure enough, they eventually drew the Wolverines into their style of hard-hitting hockey. Next thing I knew, Bowling Green’s Dan Morrison and James Unger were headed down the ice on a backside breakaway with forward Chad Kolarik as the only Michigan player anywhere near the play. The Wolverines’ defensemen had been caught pinching into the offensive zone and were tied up from getting back into position.
Senior goaltender Noah Ruden was right when he said there was no reason to celebrate some of his big saves when he eventually gave up five goals. But on the aforementioned breakaway and several other odd-man rushes, there wasn’t a whole lot Ruden could do. Thankfully, he somehow managed a few brilliant saves to keep the game from getting out of hand.
After it became clear that the Falcons had dictated the style of play, their fans continued to get louder and louder, and suddenly, Michigan was out of the game. As the clock ran down, I kept waiting for Michigan’s talent advantage to pay off, and for Bowling Green goaltender Jon Horrell to crack, but it never happened.
My suspicions of the attitudes of the two teams were confirmed by one of the Michigan Daily photographers, who was posted between the two teams’ benches to shoot the game. He described the Michigan bench as angry, or frustrated, and the Bowling Green one as cocky and brooding.
And it should have been that way. Michigan was getting knocked off by an inferior team just one night after hammering them. But still, as time expired, I was in awe of how much the victory meant to the Falcons and their fans. The arena seems about a third of the size of Yost, the student section is significantly smaller and there were a ton of Michigan fans there. But it was still loud. You would have thought that the players had won the Stanley Cup.
Instead of the relatively polite fist pounding and helmet smacking you’ve probably become accustomed to, the Falcons swarmed Horrell in his net – slamming him and the goal – into the end wall. And then, as the Wolverines left the ice and the Falcons saluted their fans, Rich Meloche was actually climbing up the glass, reaching the top and pumping his fist to the crowd. It was kind of like a Lambeau Leap on ice or “Spiderman” Helio Castroneves after an Indy Car race.
I almost wish that the Wolverines could have been out on the ice at that point. It might have made the bitter taste of losing a key game just a little more unbearable. But it would have served as a reminder for the next time Michigan heads out on the road in a
The Wolverines will always have more talent. They will always have great coaching. There will even always be fans on the road. But next time, as they pack up their gear, I hope they carry the memories of road losses like Saturday’s at Bowling Green and Tuesday’s at Michigan State along with them.
James Dowd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org