DETROIT – The University of Michigan’s elimination from the NCAA tournament ended any chance of a local team playing for a NCAA national championship at Ford Field.
Well, there may not be local teams, but there’s plenty of homegrown talent.
The squad from Miami (Ohio) boasts five Michiganders, the most of all four Frozen Four teams. The players are ecstatic to return to their home state, especially since they don’t have much free time to visit during the school year with their packed academic and athletic schedules.
“It’s incredible. It’s exciting,” said senior forward Gary Steffes, of Grand Blanc, Mich.. “When we found out it coming to Detroit, some of us just got so excited. And the fact that it’s at Ford Field here, that’s just another incredible thing to be a part of.”
Steffes grew up a mere hour from Detroit, freshman forward Devin Mantha is from Ann Arbor, which is 45 minutes away, and junior forward Andy Miele was raised in Grosse Pointe Woods, a neighboring community to the northeast.
Growing up, all three played AAA hockey for Little Caesars of the competitive Midwest Elite Hockey League. The club, owned by Red Wings’ owners Mike and Marian Ilitch, is based out of Joe Louis Arena. Getting to play in the same building as the Red Wings at a young age gave them a glimpse into what NHL life was like, and that was a dream come true.
“Obviously our dressing room was right next to (the Red Wings),” Mantha said. “And once in a while you’d see one of the NHLers coming out, and you were just shocked to see them. ‘Like wow, that’s so-and-so.’ So it was really cool, you get to look up to them.”
While they all left the state to play for Miami, the competitive environment of amateur hockey in Michigan helped them develop the drive they needed to succeed at the collegiate level.
“Growing up in Michigan, it’s a competitive, competitive state,” Steffes said. “A lot of the guys that I’ve played with, just about all of them I think are doing something. That competitive nature, you’re a part of it, right from the start.”
Their Michigan roots make them all fans of Detroit’s four sports franchises, especially the Red Wings and the Detroit Lions, who play at the 65,000-seat Ford Field.
Miele has actually experienced Ford Field at capacity when watching the Lions, and is excited to see how it looks when his team is the main attraction.
“I’ve been to two Lions’ games, so it was kind of weird playing on ice out there on the field,” Miele said. “It’s weird. It’s definitely different.”
Miami is playing in its second straight Frozen Four, having lost to Boston University in the 2009 championship game in Washington, D.C.
For both Miele and Steffes, playing in their second consecutive Frozen Four, which happens to be in their home state – is something they’ve been working toward this whole season. With their packed schedule, they won’t have time to visit the homes they grew up in, but they’ll have plenty of support in the stands.
“The fact that we’re close to home is really great,” Steffes said. “This is our hometown. We love this place. It was really cool to be able to come here and have family members and friends all within driving distance, to be able to come.”