CHICAGO — The late Bob Johnson said it best many years ago, and it still rang true Sunday.
“It was a great day for hockey,” said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson, borrowing the legendary Wisconsin coach’s famous motto.
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Indeed, Soldier Field was the place to be Sunday for hockey fans as four of college hockey’s top programs took to the ice for a double header in the OfficeMax Hockey City Classic. The opening act featured No. 3 Miami (OH) and No. 12 Notre Dame, while rivals Minnesota and Wisconsin closed out the night.
The ice conditions may not have been perfect — they rarely are for outdoor hockey — but the memory was one the fans and players won’t soon forget.
“The experience that we had today is a lifetime experience,” said Badgers head coach Mike Eaves.
Fans of all four teams enjoyed the unique fanfare of the event, descending on Chicago and arriving at Soldier Field several hours early to tailgate and partake in the weekend festivities. The games had some of the makings of a normal college hockey weekend — the pep bands, the mascots, and plenty of hockey sweaters in the stands — but this was obviously a special day for all involved.
Of course, playing in the elements resulted in some less-than-ideal conditions for a hockey rink. The sun beat down on the ice for the duration of the Notre Dame-Miami game, which led to both a glare off the playing surface and eventually a soft ice sheet. Still, the weather was nearly ideal, as temperatures began in the low 30s and dipped into the upper 20s by the second game.
“We were very fortunate. It was great weather, a great crowd,” Jackson said. “You can’t control the ice. They did a great job between periods of helping out. There were some soft spots, but they did everything they could considering it’s always gong to be like that. … I don’t think it had a huge impact on the game as much as maybe it had more of an impact on the style of play.”
Players used eye black typically worn in baseball games. Two of the four goaltenders — Miami’s Ryan McKay and Wisconsin’s Joel Rumpel — donned team-colored beanie hats over their masks to keep their heads warm. Members of all four teams packed on the extra layers of clothing to keep warm while idle on the bench, which was a long walk from the corner tunnel in Soldier Field.
When all was said and done, though, fans were treated to two entertaining hockey games — a 2-1 win for Notre Dame and a 3-2 victory for Wisconsin. By the third period of the game between Minnesota and Wisconsin, the bright lights of Soldier Field illuminated the rink as the Chicago skyline lit up in the distance. For a city rich in hockey tradition, Sunday’s event was ideal for Chicago despite a lack of a team from the city itself.
“Three of the four, maybe all four with great ties to Chicago,” Jackson said. “When you do that, you put teams of that caliber and also with ties to the area, Chicago’s a great hockey town.”
Both Notre Dame and Miami (OH) had several players who grew up in the Chicago area. That includes Fighting Irish senior Sam Calabrese from the suburb of Park Ridge.
“It was great to have all my in-laws be able to see it and not have to drive two hours to South Bend. That’s the closest hockey, so it was great,” he said. “I know a lot of the other Chicago boys have family here. Everyone was thrilled to play in this game.”
Three of the four teams were new to playing outdoors. Only Wisconsin had previously skated in an outdoor game in the modern area. In fact, the Badgers came to Soldier Field as seasoned veterans in this type of environment. Wisconsin played Ohio State at Lambeau Field in Green Bay in 2006 and hosted Michigan for a game at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison in February of 2010. Following Sunday’s 3-2 win, the Badgers are now 3-0 in outdoor games.
For the remaining three teams, Sunday’s experience was a memorable first time that brought back memories of skating on ponds or local outdoor rinks as a kid.
“I don’t think we ever fully adjusted. The sun kept moving and obviously we switched sides,” said Notre Dame forward Jeff Costello, who scored Notre Dame’s second goal in their 2-1 win. “It was tough, especially when you’re skating fast. The wind gets in your eyes and your eyes start watering and it makes it hard to see. But once you got going and kind of got used to the shadows and the sun beating down on your face, it was just like playing when you were growing up, making simple plays.”
All four teams took the opportunity to skate on the rink Saturday after their Friday night games in order to get a feel for their surroundings. Even then, it was evident that they were fired up for what Sunday had in store.
“The guys had a great time,” said Gophers coach Don Lucia. “(Saturday) night, I had to get them off the ice. They probably would have stayed and practiced for a couple hours.”
Prior to Sunday’s OfficeMax Hockey City Classic, there had been 13 outdoor games in NCAA Division I since 2000, the first of which came in 2001 when Michigan and Michigan State faced off in the Cold War at Spartan Stadium. Last weekend, North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha played outdoors at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.
Sunday’s crowd of 52,051 was the largest for an outdoor college hockey game since 2010 when Michigan and Michigan State drew 104,173 at Michigan Stadium.
“Playing outside in front of over 50,000 people was a great experience,” said Miami defenseman and Illinois native Steven Spinell. “Definitely great to be a part of this.”