MONTREAL – Nearly a decade after lacing up his skates at the Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic, Tom Gilbert says the unique aspects of the experience remain etched in his memory to this very day.
Back then, a 23-year-old Gilbert was wrapping up his four-year collegiate career at the University of Wisconsin, plying his trade on the Badgers blue line while completing a degree in business and consumer affairs. With the regular season winding down, Mike Eaves’ squad headed two-and-a-half hours north of Madison to historic Lambeau Field in Green Bay to battle the Ohio State Buckeyes in front of nearly 41,000 fans on February 11, 2006.
|Photo Credit: Wisconsin Athletic Communications |
It marked the second outdoor game to be contested between two U.S.-based collegiate teams, the first of which came on October 6, 2001 when Michigan State and Michigan went head-to-head at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, MI.
“Honestly, the thing I probably remember the most is just how cold you are – and there’s literally no way to avoid it. You’re energized right in the beginning and you’re dry going out there for warmups. You’re like – ‘Oh, it’s not that bad.’ Then, if one part of your gear is wet, and you go back in the locker room and it’s warm, then you go back out again and instantly it’s damp and cold,” offered Gilbert, who put up 33 goals and 89 points in 162 career games at Wisconsin – including 31 points in his senior year – becoming the first UW defenseman to record at least 30 points in a season since 1997-98. “It was an awesome experience, but it’s the one thing I think really sticks with you about playing in that type of game.”
An avid Green Bay Packers fan, the Bloomington, MN native did his best to soak in the sights and sounds of the famed facility over the course of several days, and even took part in a ritual generally reserved for NFLers sporting the Green and Gold.
“Playing at Lambeau Field, in our home state, in front of our home crowd, was something special. I think it was kind of snowing a little bit, which is kind of a cool effect for the game. It was a perfect setting. And, even though we were playing outside, it was loud. The crowd was great that day. Eighty or 90 percent of the people were Badgers fans. I’d been there before to watch a game, but just to be on the field and see what it feels like for those guys was so unique,” recalled Gilbert, who helped Wisconsin register a 4-2 victory over Ohio State on the strength of goals by Adam Burish, Kyle Klubertanz, Andrew Joudrey, and Robbie Earl.
“After we won, we all had a chance to go do the Lambeau Leap together with our fans in the student section. Being able to do that with skates on was such a neat experience. I’m sure that our equipment manager probably wasn’t too happy because we were walking on cement with our steel,” added Gilbert, an assistant captain in both his junior and senior seasons with the Badgers, and a one-time team MVP. “We had to get new steel for every single player. Just being able to do something like that meant a lot, though. If I’m watching a Packers game nowadays and I see one of the players do it, I might exchange a few texts with some of the guys. We still talk about how we did it also.”
|Photo Credit: Wisconsin Athletic Communications |
Besting the Buckeyes on that cold February day was one of 30 victories the Badgers managed to string together that season. They headed into the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed en route to claiming their sixth NCAA title, and first in 16 years. In retrospect, Gilbert admits that outdoor games like the Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic - and the festivities surrounding it - can ultimately bring players closer together. Interestingly enough, Wisconsin went 10-3-1 the rest of the way after downing John Markell’s contingent on the grounds of the “Frozen Tundra”.
“There’s definitely a bonding element there. There’s a lot of preparation that leads up to the game when it comes to media and traveling, going there and the whole experience as a group. It’s not just a regular hockey game. It’s an outdoor game. I guess you could say it’s kind of like a one-game playoff,” mentioned Gilbert, who scored the game-winning goal in Wisconsin’s 2-1 victory over Boston College in the 2006 Frozen Four Championship game in Milwaukee, WI come early April. “You want to be the team that wins that game. You don’t want to be on the losing end. First of all, it’s an experience you’ll never forget. Secondly, you want to be the winner and go down in history on the winning side.”
Gilbert and his teammates certainly accomplished their objective, but they were also fortunate enough to re-live an important part of their early childhood, too.
“It’s hard to explain what it’s like out there. It doesn’t really feel like a game. It feels like a shinny, pick-up game. You’ve got the outdoor feel. It’s not like a closed-in stadium. There are a ton of people out there watching. It’s a different feel, but it’s kind of like it was growing up, putting on skates and going out there as a kid. The ice has got bumps all over the place,” shared Gilbert, who was a standout at Bloomington Jefferson High School in his teens, before moving on to the USHL’s Chicago Steel prior to joining Wisconsin.
With that experience in mind, Gilbert believes he’ll be adequately prepared to handle whatever Mother Nature has in store on New Year’s Day in Foxborough, MA for the 2016 Winter Classic.
“Every single player knows what to expect. The ice isn’t going to be great, but there’s nothing you can do about that. You kind of play into it. You kind of keep the game a lot simpler. You just let the puck do the work, pretty much,” explained Gilbert, who is eagerly anticipating the Original Six matchup against the Boston Bruins at Gillette Stadium in January. “It’s going to be amazing. You don’t get to experience these kinds of games very often. It’ll be important to take in the moment, enjoy it, and go out there and have fun. Both sides are going to want to win it badly. It’s set up to be a fun and intense game.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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