NEW YORK -- Before the 2014 NHL Bridgestone Winter Classic drew more than 105,000 spectators to Michigan Stadium and the University of Michigan hosted Michigan State University in a hockey game in front of an all-time record crowd of 113,411, there was Gelsenkirchen.
That German town hosted the first game of the 2010 International Ice Hockey Federation World Hockey Championship. The game pitted the host nation against the United States at Veltins Arena, a sprawling soccer stadium that drew 77,803 fans. At the time, that attendance figure established a world record for a hockey game, topped seven months later at Michigan Stadium. The Americans lost that game 2-1, but two of the youngest players on the team will meet again, against a historic backdrop, when the New York Islanders host the New York Rangers at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS2) as part of the 2014 NHL Coors Light Stadium Series.
"It was a different experience. At the time, it was the most [spectators] ever at a hockey game. That was a pretty cool experience," Islanders forward Kyle Okposo said Tuesday after his team finished practice at Yankee Stadium. "You watched the soccer games on TV over there and you heard the hum of the crowd, the little buzz. That's how it was in the stadium. It was pretty neat."
Okposo was an alternate captain for the United States in that tournament despite being one of the team's youngest players. It was an honor bestowed upon him by U.S. coach Scott Gordon, who at the time was Okposo's coach with the Islanders. But no amount of leadership or confidence could have possibly prepared Okposo and his teammates for the raucous atmosphere in Gelsenkirchen.
While the game Wednesday at Yankee Stadium is expected to draw an even number of Rangers and Islanders fans, the turnout at Veltins Arena wasn't quite so balanced. The colossal crowd almost unanimously favored the host nation. And with the ice surface located much closer to the stands than what is typically seen at NHL stadium games, the record crowd jumped all over the visiting Americans, who lost when Felix Schutz scored 21 seconds into overtime.
"[The fans] were pretty close. It was pretty crazy. We had a hotel that was right next to the stadium, so we didn't get a whole lot of nap time that afternoon," Okposo said. "It was in Germany, against Germany, so we didn't have a whole lot of fans there."
That loss set an unfortunate tone for the Americans, who finished 13th in the tournament, which was won by the Czech Republic. For another member of that team, who at the time was still a teenager and fresh off a national championship at Boston College, the game was a particularly surreal experience.
"It was a really European crowd. They were chanting the entire game. People were smoking cigarettes in the stadium so there was a thick fog. It was amazing," Rangers forward Chris Kreider said Tuesday after his team practiced at their suburban training facility. "It was definitely different than anything I ever experienced and I think a lot of guys will attest to that. When you play in the World Championship, in general, the crowd is different. It was a blast. It's something I will always remember. But it would have been better if we would have won."
Both have established themselves as NHL players since that historic day in Germany; now they return for another stadium experience. Of course, with the pair going head-to-head for two valuable points in the Metropolitan Division, the circumstances couldn't be more different from their game at the 2010 Worlds.
Still, their experience in Gelsenkirchen set a unique precedent early on in their respective hockey careers. If nothing else, that disappointing loss taught both players a valuable lesson that should come in handy Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium.
"At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter how many people you're playing in front of. When that puck drops, it's a game," Okposo said. "It will be the same thing [Wednesday]. We're looking forward to it. I might look around a couple of times. But the game is played between the glass."