Indoors, outdoors . . . Gophers just want to win
MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota men’s hockey team learned a lot when it played outdoors last year at Soldier Field in Chicago. The Gophers faced rival Wisconsin in the inaugural Hockey City Classic and got a first-hand lesson about what it’s like to brave the elements.
Minnesota’s players and coaches also took away another lesson from that game that they hope to change this Friday when the Gophers host Ohio State at TCF Bank Stadium.
"The one thing I can glean, if you don’t win it’s no fun," said Gophers coach Don Lucia. "Obviously that’s the priority."
The Gophers lost last year’s outdoor game to the Badgers by a 3-2 final in what counted as a conference game. Valuable points will once again be on the line Friday as Ohio State and Minnesota battle for positioning in the Big Ten standings.
So while the pomp and circumstance of the outdoor game may be unusual and exciting, the goal remains the same for Minnesota’s players: win.
"It’s not something that you get to do every day. You’ve got to go out there and really take it all in and enjoy yourself," said Gophers forward Seth Ambroz. "At the same time, it’s just another hockey game."
Friday night’s game is a quick turnaround for Minnesota, which played Sunday and Monday at Penn State and didn’t practice on Tuesday. The first time the Gophers hit the ice for an outdoor practice will be Thursday, giving them just one day to adjust to the unusual conditions of playing hockey in a football stadium.
The ice at last year’s Hockey City Classic certainly was a factor in the game against Wisconsin. Because of direct sunlight on the rink throughout that day, the ice became slushy and slowed down play. Pucks bounced off the ice more than usual. Neither team used it as an excuse; it was simply part of playing outdoors, and something that both sides had to deal with.
The Gophers — as well as Chicago-based Intersport, the company that puts on the Hockey City Classic — are hoping the ice conditions Friday will be much better than they were a year ago. Temperatures in the Twin Cities have been plenty cold to help keep the ice frozen. And the rink at TCF Bank Stadium — home to the Gophers’ football team — doesn’t see much direct sunlight. That should translate into a nice, solid sheet of ice.
"Last year, the ice had a huge effect," said Minnesota goalie Adam Wilcox. "A couple of the shots that were on the ice actually deflected off the ice itself. That’s one thing I’ll have to focus on is watching the ice and the bounces and stuff like that, because anything could happen."
Just like it did last year, this week’s outdoor game stirs up memories for Gophers players and coaches alike of when they grew up playing hockey outdoors in the winter. Lucia remembers having to shovel snow off the rink as a kid in Grand Rapids, Minn., who was too impatient to wait for the plow to do the job. Wilcox had a rink in his backyard in South St. Paul and also spent several youth practices and games on outdoor rinks.
With a roster laden with so many Minnesota natives, the Gophers aren’t lacking for experience skating outdoors.
"It’s always fun, going out there and playing some shinny hockey with your friends and just enjoying the way hockey kind of started," Ambroz said. "It’s going to be a fun experience again this year. Hopefully we’ll come out on top."
Before the top-ranked Gophers men’s team hosts Ohio State on Friday, the top-ranked Gophers women’s team will face Minnesota State that afternoon. That means the entire day’s event will be centered around Gophers teams.
It’s always fun, going out there and playing some shinny hockey with your friends and just enjoying the way hockey kind of started.
That wasn’t the case last year, when four different schools took part in the two games at Soldier Field. There was no true home team; Notre Dame was the closest school, and its campus in South Bend, Ind., was an hour and a half from the Windy City. With a true home crowd decked out in maroon and gold and 45,000 to 50,000 fans expected to attend, the Gophers can take advantage of their home-ice — or home-field — advantage.
"It’s always fun when you have a huge atmosphere," Wilcox said. "If we can get that many people in that building, I think it would have a huge effect on the game and just make the atmosphere that much better."
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