J.T. Compher will play in his first outdoor NHL game on Saturday, Feb 15 when the Colorado Avalanche meets the Los Angeles Kings at the U.S. Air Force Academy, but the University of Michigan alum already has a unique perspective in such events.
Compher's Wolverines played in-state rival Michigan State twice outside during his collegiate career, continuing a rich tradition of NCAA hockey in the elements. They also played one game against the Western Michigan Broncos during his three years in Ann Arbor.
"It's always fun, those outdoor games," Compher said. "A lot of excitement and build-up for it."
The Michigan Wolverines and Michigan State Spartans are known for their outdoor hockey battles, as the two schools played in the first outdoor game of the 21st century when they met for the "Cold War" game on Oct. 6, 2001. Taking the ice at Spartan Stadium on the campus of Michigan State, the event set a record for attendance at a hockey game at 74,554. Nine years later on Dec. 11, 2010, the rematch at Michigan Stadium, aka the Big House, set a new record of 104,173 that still stands today.
Compher, 24, didn't arrive on the Michigan campus until 2013 after playing two seasons at the nearby U.S. National Team Development Program, but he played in three such open-air contests in his first two seasons in maize and blue.
In his first go-around on Dec. 27, 2013 as part of the Hockeytown Winter Festival at Comerica Park--home of Major League Baseball's Detroit Tigers--Compher scored a short-handed goal but the Wolverines lost 3-2 in overtime to Western Michigan. The four-team series in Detroit, which also included Michigan Tech, continued the next day as Michigan met rival Michigan State but lost 3-0.
That shutout to a rival wouldn't be Compher's last experience in the elements however, as he and UM picked up the win during his sophomore campaign.
In his last outdoor game to date, Compher and Wolverines got payback against the Spartans in a 4-1 victory at Soldier Field in Chicago on Feb. 7, 2015 as part of the Hockey City Classic. It almost didn't even happen.
The contest started an hour and 40 minutes late after poor ice conditions delayed the first game of the Hockey City Classic between Miami Ohio and Western Michigan. The inconvenience, however, didn't appear to throw Michigan off their game, as the Wolverines jumped out to a 3-0 lead and never relented. Still, the first thing Compher remembers about that day was everything that was outside of their control.
"We had tough ice conditions in Chicago, but that's part of it," said Compher, who grew up in the nearby suburb of Northbrook, Illinois. "When you play outdoors you can't control any of the conditions. It's just about enjoying it. It's always a lot of fun. I think the guys will have a good time."
Now, Compher is excited for the next chapter of his outdoor-playing career. In addition to sharing the experience with his team and family, he's looking forward to what the NHL might have planned ahead of puck drop at one of the United States' service academies.
"I'm sure an NHL outdoor game will have a few more festivities and attention to it," Compher said. "It'll be a fun opportunity for our team.
"Obviously the atmosphere will be exciting, but to share it with friends and family coming in, it'll be fun to share that experience with them."