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Wolverines, Spartans ready to head back outdoors

by James Murphy
Following his team's 3-3 tie with Michigan State in "The Cold War" at Spartan Stadium at East Lansing, Mich., on Oct. 6, 2001, Michigan head coach Red Berenson forecasted the future of outdoor hockey over the last nine years:

"I thought I'd seen everything in hockey," Berenson said. "This couldn't have turned out better. I think it's pretty obvious that (playing outdoors) is something people are going to look at in the future for their big games."

Boy, was Berenson right! Since then, he has participated in another outdoor game and the hockey world has seen seven major outdoor hockey games, including three Winter Classics and then the World Championship in Germany when the USA played Germany in front of 77,803 fans at Veltins Arena last May.

That World Championship game was, to date, the largest crowd to ever attend a hockey game and on Saturday, Berenson and Michigan will host the Spartans in "The Big Chill at the Big House" -- Michigan Stadium -- in front of an expected 110,000 fans, which would set a new attendance record. Since "The Cold War," Berenson has wanted to host an outdoor game in Ann Arbor and earlier this week he credited those who finally made it happen.

"This was something that I guess finalized back in January of a year ago when the administration made the commitment to put this game on," Berenson said Monday. "And when I say commitment, if you ask the people that have been involved in all the things that have to happen for this event to go off as well as it will, there's a lot more than we can talk about today. I'm really impressed with our athletic department's commitment to follow through and it's been literally seamless from my perspective. So good job and now the rest is up to our team."

Both the Wolverines and Spartans are chomping at the bit to get out and play what right now will be the biggest games of their lives. They've endured the hype and anxiety leading up to this moment and now it's time to play.

"We've been waiting for this, looking forward to it and now we can say it's our next game," Berenson said. "We don't have to keep it off in the distance and worry about current games. We can start worrying about it now because it's a reality."

Michigan State head coach Rick Comley hasn't been worried about the build-up distracting his team because he knows his players understand the significance of the rivalry between the two schools and the value of the three points in the CCHA standings. The only real preparation he gave to his players was having them watch "The Cold War" to comprehend what's in store for them on Saturday.

"We haven't even talked about it because we've had other games," Comley said. "I know Monday they watched the last outdoor game here, so I think their heads are in it. We have so many Michigan kids, so how can they not be wrapped up in it. I'm just going to get them ready and we're just trying to get better, as corny as that sounds. Michigan has nine seniors, they're an outstanding team, and I don't think there's anybody in the country better than them top to bottom. So we just want to get ready and win a game."

But while both coaches want their players to focus on the task at hand, by no means do they want to distract them from a magical memory either. Both Comley and Berenson have outdoor hockey memories of their own and they're excited for their players and what they are about to experience.

"I played in Europe, on the Canadian National team on our way to the World Championships in 1959," Berenson said. "We played in Oslo and I was 19. I dropped out of school for a semester to play in it and to be picked up for Canada. There we were playing in an outdoor building; it was like a soccer stadium. There had to be maybe 15-20,000 people and they all stood the whole game and the snow was coming down through the lights and it was magical. Then we did the same thing in Helsinki and Stockholm in these huge outdoor rinks because they didn't have indoor rinks at the time. Then we played in Garmisch, Germany, and Cortina, Italy, and so on, all these magical places where they'd had the Winter Olympics and had great venues.

"So as a 19-year-old, I played in some of those and these were still big games. Now we get a chance to play in what are the biggest games for my recent tenure and again it's going to be magical. So I've been there, I've enjoyed it and I'm looking forward to this one."

Comley remembers neighborhood pick-up games and also enjoyed watching "The Cold War" game and the Winter Classics. As he pointed out, if Sidney Crosby can feel like a kid skating with his buddies back home in the Winter Classic, then his players will have no problem soaking it all in.

"Get home after school, put your skates on and walk in snow banks to wherever you were going to go and skate until it got too dark to find the puck," said Comley, recalling the experience fondly. "Day after day, every single day, I don't know if I missed a day outside skating in the winter months.

"I think there's always a part of us. I come from a generation that played more outside than inside -- never in front of a crowd, it was always your buddies on the corner rink and doing all that stuff -- so I watched the game in '01, which I though was tremendous, and I've watched every game since. To me, all you have to do is watch Sidney Crosby playing in a (outdoor) game and see what it means to a player like that, then you know what it's going to mean to our kids."
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