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Hagelin, Merrill share Big House memories

by Tal Pinchevsky

On Jan. 1, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings will meet at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., for the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. The game is expected to be a landmark hockey event, not to mention a key matchup between Original Six and Atlantic Division rivals.

But it won't be the first time the stadium has hosted hockey; the University of Michigan and Michigan State University met on Dec. 11, 2010 in a rivalry game dubbed the Big Chill at the Big House. The game drew a world record attendance of 113,411 fans. And for the future NHL players who played in that epic contest, a 5-0 Michigan win, there are still plenty of vivid memories from a special moment in hockey history.

"I had 30 people from Sweden coming in wearing the Swedish national team jersey with my name and number on the back. You couldn't see them up there since everyone was wearing yellow," said New York Rangers forward Carl Hagelin. "It was a great atmosphere. It was probably one of the most surreal experiences I've been a part of. The crowd was going the whole game. After the game we stayed out on the ice and waited for the fireworks. That was a good memory."

With two goals and an assist, Hagelin keyed the Wolverines offense against a longtime rival. A senior at the time, Hagelin was closing out his college career with a big game on the biggest stage before leading his team to a CCHA championship and an appearance in the Frozen Four.

But it was a freshman who enjoyed a coming-out party in front of the raucous Ann Arbor crowd.

Just 19 years old at the time, New Jersey Devils defenseman Jon Merrill practically grew up in the Big House's shadow in nearby Brighton, Mich. In the Big Chill at the Big House, the freshman sparked Michigan by scoring the game's first two goals 2:50 apart in the first period. It was quite a way for the young blueliner to make his mark in Michigan's prolific hockey history.

"My biggest memory was I had two goals in that game. I usually don't score at all, so that was the highlight of the year for me. It was pretty special," Merrill said. "We just wanted to make sure we were relishing the moment. We wanted to take it all in and made sure we took a second to have fun. We knew it was a big rivalry game and just wanted to make sure we created some memories out there in front of 110,000-plus people."

The game was more than just an impressive win for Michigan. It was a first-of-its-kind event in front of a record crowd. Each of Michigan's goals was followed by a fireworks display that only added to the atmosphere. Considering the lopsided score, that meant the Ann Arbor crowd was treated to quite a celebration.

"They had fireworks coming up after each goal. That was a pretty cool feeling, to get the goal and then hear the big boom as the fireworks came up," said Hagelin, whose first goal gave the Wolverines a strong 3-0 lead in the second period. "That's when we felt we've got this."

For the visiting Michigan State Spartans, the loss was difficult, but the historic game still left a lasting impression.

"We lost 5-0, so during the game there weren’t too many great memories. But I just remember driving to the stadium was pretty special," said Michigan native Torey Krug, an MSU sophomore at the time who now patrols the Boston Bruins' defense. "You know Michigan football is pretty big in the state of Michigan. Driving through Ann Arbor to the rink, it was just crazy to see how many people were there celebrating the festivities. And then my favorite part of the experience on the ice was the flyover before the game. That was pretty special. And just looking up and seeing all the people was pretty amazing."

An amazing experience that will be replicated Jan. 1, when Michigan Stadium hosts its first NHL game.

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