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Publish date: Dec 16, 2010

Michigan does outdoor ice hockey right

By Michelle Brutlag Hosick

When Michigan’s men’s ice hockey team took on in-state rival Michigan State at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, the hours before game time were no different than if the teams about to take each other on were going to toss the pigskin instead of drop the puck.

Indeed, all the trappings of a Michigan football game were on display: The parking lot was full of tailgaters for hours before the game; the student-athletes jumped up to slap the Michigan banner as they exited the locker room; a stealth bomber buzzed the stadium before game time; the marching band revved up the crowd (including the drum major’s famous dip, performed this time on the ice); fans did the wave; and every time Michigan scored, fireworks exploded.

The Big Chill at the Big House drew a Guinness-confirmed 85,451 fans, setting a world record for attendance at a hockey game and creating a memorable experience for student-athletes and fans alike. According to Michigan officials, the school sold more than 100,000 tickets for the game. Media members, stadium workers and others were included to reach a count of 113,411. The game also drew the highest college hockey ratings in Fox Sports Detroit history. The game was also broadcast nationally by the Big Ten Network.

Ty Halpin, NCAA associate director for playing rules administration, attended the game.

“Michigan did some really unique things, some nice touches you don’t usually get at a hockey game,” Halpin said. At the same time, the school preserved many beloved hockey traditions, like the goal count after each home team score, though others – like the intimacy of fans pounding on the glass – had to be abandoned for the novel event.

Having an outdoor hockey event is a novelty in some ways – though those in the north and from outside the U.S. grow up playing pickup games on frozen-over ponds and are used to the outdoors. The NHL began holding the Winter Classic, an outdoor contest held on New Year’s Day, in 2008, and the 2009 matchup between the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks at Wrigley Field drew the highest television ratings of any hockey game in 33 years.

College teams have played outdoors sporadically. Last season, Boston U. and Boston College played at Fenway Park and Michigan played at Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium. Michigan State began the outdoor-hockey-game fad when it played Michigan at Spartan Stadium in 2001, drawing 74,544 fans.

Halpin said the outdoor games can be an incredible atmosphere and that he’s sure more people will do it, though Saturday’s world-record attendance will be difficult to outdo.  Some officials at the game theorized that some unique settings combined with the right circumstances might bring a spotlight to the college game in high-population areas – like pitting two college programs against each other on the ice in Central Park in New York City or on the national mall in Washington, D.C.

Logistically, Halpin said Saturday’s game was the best outdoor ice surface he had seen at a college event. Because of the inability to control things like temperature and humidity, an outdoor surface is generally not as fast or smooth as indoor ice. The puck bounces more, and ice can crack if it gets to cold or soften if it gets too warm. But the Olympic-size rink laid on the field at Michigan Stadium didn’t present any major problems.

The weather held out for the game – a hard rain fell a few hours after game time, but Halpin said if the rain had come earlier, play could have been delayed or postponed. The temperatures did cause the glass around the rink to frost over a few hours before the game, and the grounds crew spent time scraping the frost to improve site lines.

The event was a success by any standard, Halpin said.

“I do think (outdoor games) will continue to happen,” he said. “This was a tremendous opportunity to shine the spotlight on college hockey, and it was great to see how well it was embraced. It can be a really fun thing in the right circumstances.”