|The GLI consolation game at Comerica Park was the first time UM's J.T. Compher played against the in-state rival Michigan State Spartans. He had two shots on goal and a block in the Wolverines' 3-0 loss. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Detroit Red Wings) |
DETROIT – In Michigan, you either cheer, “Go Green!” or “Let’s Go Bluel!” There is no in between when it comes to the in-state rivalry between the University of Michigan and Michigan State.
It’s an understanding that is familiar among fans, students and alumni of the universities, especially as the two programs prepare to face off at Joe Louis Arena next Thursday as part of the annual “College Hockey in the D” series hosted by Olympia Entertainment.
“It split my family apart,” Wolverines forward Andrew Copp said of the rivalry. “My aunt and uncle went to State and they’re huge State fans, my cousin’s a huge State fan. It’s very important, you can’t really be in the middle. You’re either Michigan or Michigan State. We try not to talk about it too much and overemphasize it but at the same time it’s one of those huge rivalry games.”
It’s a rivalry that cannot be ignored or downplayed by anyone, as the game even got moved from its original date on Jan. 25 so it would not interfere with the Michigan-Michigan State men’s basketball game in East Lansing.
“It’s huge. It’s not just a game between the two schools, it’s a big game in the Big Ten Conference, obviously,” UM coach Red Berenson said. “This is the first year in the Big Ten Conference and that seems to be growing the importance of these games a lot.”
UM and MSU have met at least once per season at The Joe since 1980, with the Wolverines holding the series advantage with a 13-9-4 record. The conference game on Jan. 23 will mark the second meeting between the two teams this season, as the Spartans defeated the then-third ranked Wolverines, 3-0, in the consolation game of last month’s Great Lakes Invitational at Comerica Park.
Since the upset, Michigan has lost two straight games and dropped to No. 13 in the NCAA rankings, and is hoping to get its season back on track inside The Joe.
“Obviously we came away with a sour taste in our mouth but we know we have to play better on both sides of the rink, or both sides of the puck,” Berenson said. “That game we didn’t score a goal, obviously, and their goalie played really well but we have to play better defensively. We gave up a couple of lucky or fluky goals in that game that we just can’t afford to give up. Goals are precious between these two teams. Both teams have earned everything at both ends of the rink and I think you’ll see a really hard fought close game.”
The Wolverines were without Copp in their lone meeting with the Spartans this season, who was in Sweden as an alternate captain for Team USA at the World Junior Championship. His five assists in five games tied for first on Team USA, but the Americans failed to defend their 2013 WJC title, falling to Russia 5-3 in the quarterfinals.
“It was a lot of fun,” Copp said. “It was an honor to put on the USA jersey and it was a tough thing to take off after the loss to Russia but it was a great experience playing against and with some of the best players in the world. I had a lot of fun over there.”
Through 16 games, the center currently leads Michigan with 10 goals and 16 points, and Berenson is excited to see him back on the lineup against his team’s in-state rival.
“He’s our No. 1 centerman, he’s our leading scorer, he’s one of our captains and one of our true leaders of our team and he leads by example every day in practice and in games,” Berenson said. “He’s a key player, when you miss him, that’s like having a top player injured. But he’s back now and that should make our team better in this game, in this upcoming series.”
The Wolverines have also leaned on freshman JT Compher for offensive production this season, who has recorded six goals and nine assists in 18 games. His 15 points are second only to Copp’s 16, and the Buffalo Sabres’ second round pick in the 2013 NHL draft credits his teammates for much of his success during his first year at Michigan.
“I think it’s been great coming in with the players we have,” Compher said. “Everyone’s very skilled and it makes it a lot easier on me. I’ve been able to play with some great players so it really helps. I just think I’m a hard working player. I try to be just as offensive as I am defensive, a two-way player and a playmaker with the puck so I try and create chances for my team.”
The freshman recorded two shots and one block in UM’s first meeting against Michigan State this season, and is looking forward to the rematch against the Spartans, which will also mark his first game at The Joe.
“I think it’s going to be cool playing in an NHL building, where the pros play,” Compher said. “I think that it’s going to be great to hear all the fans and hopefully we’ll have a great crowd and get the rivalry heated up again.”
It will be a game to remember for Copp, who will face former teammate and current MSU forward Joe Cox for the first time of his career. But once the Michigan center steps on the ice, he knows it’s going to be all about business.
“I grew up playing with him through youth hockey,” Copp said. “He’s like a brother to me, but he won’t be next weekend.”
Rivalry aside, Berenson understands the importance of how the annual game between the two programs at Joe Louis Arena brings friends, family and fans together to celebrate the game of hockey.
“When you have a game between these two schools, it gives all the fans a chance to come, not just all our home fans that would come to Yost or all their home fans that would go to Munn, but it gives all the Michigan State and Michigan fans and the alumni in the area a chance to get a ticket and come and see these two teams play in an NHL venue,” Berenson said. “It doesn’t get any better than that. And then it’s an opportunity for all the young kids in the area that aspire someday to play Division I hockey at one of these schools to come and see their teams play so I just think it’s a win-win. Our players love it. It’s a thrill for them to play at Joe Louis Arena and I think it’s a thrill for the fans to come and see them.”
Tickets for the “College Hockey in the D” are available for purchase at the JLA box office by calling 313-471-7575, at all Ticketmaster outlets, or online at OlympiaEntertainment.com.