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Buckeyes get into outdoor spotlight facing Wolverines

by Corey Masisak
COLUMBUS -- Sean Duddy's parents were among the more than 104,000 people in the crowd at Michigan Stadium for The Big Chill at The Big House on Dec. 11, 2010. Some of his friends from high school were there too.

Duddy grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., but he wasn't on the ice when Michigan beat Michigan State in front of the largest crowd ever to see a hockey game. That day Duddy was in Bowling Green, Ohio, helping his Ohio State Buckeyes to a 4-2 win.

So how did an Ann Arbor kid end up in Columbus with Michigan's archrival?

"I get that asked that question all the time," Duddy said. "It was just a combination of things. It felt like the right fit for me. I liked the school, loved the facilities and the staff, and it was just the right place for me. Surprisingly, a lot of people from my hometown go to Michigan State and not Michigan. Some people just don't want to stay at home for college. I knew some people who go to Michigan and they always give me some healthy chirps, for sure."

Duddy is a senior and a two-year captain for the Buckeyes. His team will play the Wolverines at Progressive Field in Cleveland on Sunday in the Frozen Diamond Faceoff.

"It is going to be awesome. Watching it the past couple years with the NHL Winter Classic and having grown up playing some outside, it is going to be great -- especially playing against Michigan."
-- Ohio State sophomore Alex Lippencott

The event at the home of Major League Baseball's Cleveland Indians is part of the team's "Snow Days." Progressive Field has been turned into something of a winter wonderland, complete with an eight-lane snow tubing hill, a skating track along the edge of the non-symmetrical outfield wall and a 200-by-85 foot rink along the first base line where the Buckeyes and Wolverines will do battle.

"It is going to be awesome," sophomore Alex Lippencott said. "Watching it the past couple years with the NHL Winter Classic and having grown up playing some outside, it is going to be great -- especially playing against Michigan."

Lippencott will be the hometown kid Sunday. He grew up in Akron, Ohio, which is about a 45-minute drive from Cleveland.

He cut his teeth in the sport with the Cleveland Barons youth hockey organization, and has spent plenty of summer days and nights at this stadium.

"I grew up watching the Indians and going to Indians games," Lippencott said. "It is going to be a neat experience. I've been watching the Indians from the stands all these years, and now I'm going to be down on the field playing in front of hopefully 40,000 people."

These two schools are among the signature brands of college football. Michigan hockey is also steeped in tradition. The Wolverines have won a record nine NCAA championships, play in one of college hockey's classic barns, Yost Ice Arena, which opened in 1923, and are led by one of the greatest coaches in the sport, Red Berenson, who is in his 28th season behind the bench.

The Wolverines nearly won championship No. 10 last season, losing in overtime of the national championship game to Minnesota-Duluth. They also have an edge in experience when it comes to outdoor games, having played both at The Big House last season and at Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium two years ago.

"It is just so much fun," Michigan defenseman Lee Moffie said. "It is going to be tough to beat last year at Michigan Stadium with 113,000 [paid attendance -- the Guinness Book of World Records identified the official crowd that day as 104,173]. That was just absolutely special. Luckily, the last two years the weather has been good. It was pretty cold in Wisconsin [two years ago]. We'll see how it is on Sunday."

Added Berenson: "These games kind of have their own life. The Big Chill was a tremendous spectacle and I'm sure this one on Sunday will be. It sounds like it will be a real winter affair."

The Buckeyes are not a traditional power in college hockey. Ohio State has been to the Frozen Four once -- in 1998. While Michigan has been a factory for NHL players, Ohio State has produced significantly fewer -- though Ryan Kesler, RJ Umberger and David Steckel all played together for the Buckeyes.

All that said, there has been a bit of a role reversal this season. Ohio State did not make the NCAA tournament last year, coach Mark Osiecki's first with the program, but the Buckeyes are currently the No. 2 team in the country in the college hockey polls and atop the CCHA standings.

"We're still kind of the underdog now, but that's good," Lippencott said. "We like being the ones that no one expected to come out the woodwork, but it is awesome. We have still to play our game and muck and grind out the wins. It is not something that we can embrace and take too far."

The Buckeyes have a young team -- eight freshmen and six sophomores dressed for their game Friday night. They have a young coach who is likely one of the favorites to collect coach of the year awards.

Both of these schools will be moving to the newly-formed Big Ten hockey conference in 2013-14, and will continue to gain more television exposure with games on the Big Ten Network. It isn't hard to see a future where Ohio State is considered one of the consistent elite college hockey programs. This game Sunday could also play a big role in helping that future.

"For the exposure and where we want to get to, what we want to continue to build on, I think it is unbelievable," Osiecki said. "When our Associate A.D. asked if this was ever a possibility, he didn't even have to finish the sentence. It was, 'No problem -- yeah, we're in.' It does great things for your program. It gets you on a national stage and it is a great opportunity to sell college hockey."

Michigan scuffled earlier in the season, in part because top defenseman and New Jersey Devils prospect Jon Merrill was suspended, but the Wolverines have stabilized and have six wins and two ties in their past eight games.

One of those victories came Friday night here in Columbus. The Wolverines, behind 46 saves from 5-foot-7 goaltender Shawn Hunwick (his brother Matt plays for the Colorado Avalanche) defeated the Buckeyes 4-0 at Value City Arena.

It was a physical contest and a solid lead-in to the showdown Sunday in Cleveland.

"As they are having a better year, it makes the rivalry that much stronger," Moffie said after the game Friday. "Obviously Michigan and Ohio State has a storied rivalry. Hockey hasn't been as strong, but it has definitely been getting a lot stronger since I've been here. You could just tell with the crowd tonight -- it looked pretty nice. We're excited and they always play physical against us. That is their game. It got a little chippy at the end tonight so it should be fun on Sunday."

Added Lippencott: "This is the big one. It is a classic series, Ohio State-Michigan, and it is going to be awesome. Everyone knows about the football rivalry, and we're trying to bring the hockey rivalry some extra life."
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