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Rivalry runs deep in Wolverine State

by Adam Schwartz

Michigan and Michigan State are storied collegiate hockey programs, and prior to the 2008 Entry Draft, they were both among the top four colleges for producing NHL draft picks.

Ann Arbor and East Lansing are American hockey havens for the University of Michigan and Michigan State, respectively, and have produced NHL stars like Selke Trophy-winner John Madden of the New Jersey Devils and star goalies Marty Turco of the Dallas Stars and Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres.

Miller is especially steeped in Michigan State tradition, playing three seasons for the Spartans to continue a family legacy. His grandfather, father and uncle all played for Michigan State, as did his three cousins who also made the NHL, Kelly, Kevin and Kip Miller.

"My grandparents had season tickets from when my father was playing there all the way through," Miller said "We had tickets a couple rows up behind the bench as a kid. If my cousins were playing there we were relating to it. It's always fun to be part of that Spartan hockey family. It was good every Saturday night; on the weekend we'd be at the rink."

Rick Comley, who is heading into his sixth season as Michigan State's coach, said an allegiance to one school or the other is instilled in Michigan hockey players from an early age.

"The kids from Michigan that select college hockey as their path either pick Michigan or Michigan State," Comley said. "Michigan also has an excellent program and most kids from Michigan pick either one or the other. It's funny because a lot of kids grow up either Michigan or Michigan State fans so a lot of times it's ingrained into them, so a lot of times, if they get an offer, they will go where their No. 1 interest is. That's how it is. Some parents went to one school and some went to the other and they seem to have an influence and the kid gravitates toward one school or the other."

Mel Pearson, who has been the assistant coach for the Wolverines since 1988, said the rivalry is so strong because both schools traditionally have strong teams.  

"You either like Michigan or you like Michigan State," Pearson said. "There's no in-between. You either like one or you like the other and that's the way it is. In hockey we have a really good rivalry. The two programs are very competitive and among the top teams in the country. In the last few years both of us have had good hockey programs and that obviously adds to the rivalry."

While Michigan is the more recognizable school, Pearson dispels the notion that Michigan players prefer his school to Michigan State.

"I would like to think that kids prefer our school to Michigan State, but I don't think that's the case," Pearson said. "I think kids think that both of the schools are two good schools with two good hockey programs that have produced a fair amount of NHL players. I would like to think that kids have Michigan first on their list, particularly the kids that were born in Michigan, but we have lost some good players that have gone to Michigan State, but we have also got our share of players to come here."

The two clubs annually face one another at Joe Louis Arena, home of the Red Wings. Comley said the games -- which usually are close -- have added excitement by playing at "The Joe."

"They are always great games," Comley said. "More often than not they are one-goal games. We meet once in Joe Louis, which draws a big crowd, which is exciting. They are games for the players, they are games for the fans. They are high speed and they are always highly competitive."

Last season, Michigan beat the Spartans 5-2 in Detroit, but the Wolverines failed to beat them in three other games -- two losses and a tie. This season, however, with the introduction of the shootout to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, there won't be any ties.

"This year we're going to have to concentrate defensively until we get some experience because we have so many freshmen," Comley said. "Of the two teams I would say we are the more defensively oriented. Michigan has great speed and great offense and we are more of a mix. We've got to cut down their odd-man rushes and make them work hard to get their chances. We try to put the pressure back on them. If they are defending their own net they are not coming at yours."

Pearson knows his club is more offensive, and he helps recruit players who fit that mold but still have a sense of defensive responsibility.

"We're more offensive," Pearson said. "We play more wide-open games and we recruit to that. We place an emphasis on players who can skate and score, but at the same time we don't ignore the defensive aspect of the game. I think if you ask anyone they would tell you that we're more of a run-and-gun type of team." 

How this year's rivalry is going to play out is anyone's guess, but the sure thing is that it is going to provide college hockey fans in the state of Michigan with some scintillating action.

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