“The term, Cold War, could not have been more perfect,” says Komisarek, who now plays for the Montreal Canadiens but was a star for Michigan back when the Cold War was staged at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich. “I mean, we hate each other.
“Michigan State vs. Michigan is the biggest rivalry in the state,” he continued. “You are either green-and-white or maize-and-blue. So, the Cold War was an amazing experience.”
The game, played Oct. 6, 2001, was played on the floor of Michigan State’s football field and served as the Central Collegiate Hockey Association’s opener for both teams. It ended in a thrilling 3-3 tie, but was remembered for so much more.
The historic event drew 77,554 fans, shattering the hockey attendance record of 55,000 that had been established March 5, 1957 when the Soviet Union played Sweden in a World Championship gold-medal game at Lenin Stadium in Moscow. The North American record, at the time, was the 28,183 spectators in attendance for a 1996 Stanley Cup Playoff game at Tropicana Field between the host Tampa Bay Lightning and the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Cold War also provided the blueprint for several outdoor games that would follow and further expand on the original idea.
The Heritage Classic, played in Edmonton in 2003 and featuring the host Oilers, was the first NHL regular-season game ever held outside. The Frozen Tundra Classic, played in 2006, pitted the University of Wisconsin against Ohio State at the legendary Lambeau Field. Later that year, Russia celebrated its vast hockey history with a game in Red Square featuring retired Russian stars against former NHL greats.
Now, the NHL is ready to jump back into the outdoor fray with the Winter Classic in Buffalo on New Year’s Day. That game, played at Ralph Wilson Stadium, will feature the host Sabres facing off against the Pittsburgh Penguins in a game that will be telecast on NBC in the United States.
But it was Michigan State and Michigan that got the ball rolling back in 2003. And there are players from that historic game who have not only graduated to the NHL, but are also lucky enough to take part in the upcoming Winter Classic.
Ryan Miller, Buffalo’s starting goalie, was Michigan State’s masked man that day. His MSU teammate, Adam Hall, who scored the opening goal of the Cold War, now plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Each has fond memories of their first outdoor-game experience, and each is very excited to relive the unique event by participating in the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day.
Miller vividly remembers being completely taken aback when he left the Michigan State dressing room that day and emerged from under the stands to be greeted by a mass of humanity that literally took his breath away.
“I just remember the crowd and how overwhelming it was to be in front of that many people in that environment,” Miller said. “It was pretty wild and pretty interesting. After that, you understand why football players are always pumped up. You know, 75,000 people is a lot of energy. And they were all focused on hockey.”
Hall, also talked about his memories of the first glimpse of the crowd on that historic day.
“I remember we were walking out of the tunnel onto the field and you could see the light at the end of the tunnel coming from the far end of the stadium and it’s like this distant roar coming from the stands,” said Hall. “As you walk out of the tunnel, it opens up and the fans are all around you and it gets even louder. I just remember that was really a wonderful feeling.”
But then the game started and there were hardships associated with playing outdoors that had to be overcome. The temperature was around freezing, but the winds were gusting at 30 mph. And, it was the power of that wind that made a lasting impression on Hall.
“I thought the glass was going to be tall enough to block the wind,” Hall said. “But it wasn’t. If the wind was behind you, you just felt like you had somebody behind you just pushing you along and giving you an extra burst of speed. Then, the next period, you are going into the wind and it felt like your feet were in quicksand.”
Miller, meanwhile, recalls struggling with his angles because of the unfamiliar sightlines caused by the football-field configuration. He also remembers patches of shadowy ice because of the uneven lighting provided by the stadium lights.
“It was strange, like being out in the ocean almost,” Miller said. “It was strange, but you just did the best you could.”
But the good far outweighed the bad on the magical day in East Lansing six years ago. And that is why both Hall and Miller were immediately eager to embark on the challenge of once again playing outdoors when informed about the Winter Classic.
“You just have to enjoy it,” Hall said. “It’s not something everybody gets to do. It’s a real special thing. I don’t know what the stadium there holds, but maybe there is a possibility of breaking a world record, so that alone should be something special.
“Even if that is not the case, the sheer number of people that come out for something like this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Who knows when you will get another chance like this?”