On top of the ol' Tundra, a great day for hockey
With the college game still trying to expand beyond its parochial heritage, it's hard to argue against the additional exposure that events like the Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic can provide.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Somewhere, the late Bob Johnson is smiling.
The former Wisconsin hockey coach, who directed the Badgers to three national championships back in the 1970s and '80s, told anyone who would listen that every day was a great day for hockey.
|“||There was another reason, rather than just to win a hockey game, that this game was important. It was about winning it
for everybody that
was here. ”
|— Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves|
Saturday more than lived up to Badger Bob's credo.
Sure, it was the first day of ice hockey competition at the Winter Olympics in Italy. And the NHL offered up an Original Six game with the Rangers-Maple Leafs in Toronto. Even college hockey had two of its better traditions this weekend with the Winter Carnival at Michigan Tech and the Big Red Freakout at RPI.
But nowhere was it more evident than at one of the most hallowed grounds in all of sports.
On a mostly gray afternoon in east central Wisconsin, Lambeau Field -- yes, that Lambeau Field -- was turned into a hockey festival for the Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic.
The game marked the third outdoor game in North America since 2001, including the Cold War between Michigan and Michigan State (Oct. 6, 2001) and the NHL Heritage Classic in Edmonton between the Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens (Nov. 22, 2003).
Both of those games drew more fans -- 74,554 in East Lansing and 57,167 in Alberta -- but this was the only one that saw the home team win as the Badgers delivered a 4-2 victory over Ohio State in front of 40,890 on a makeshift rink on top of the famous Lambeau grass.
"Because the environment was clearly different, it was about playing with simplicity and playing with energy," Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. "But there was another reason, rather than just to win a hockey game, that this game was important. It was about winning it for everybody that was here."
Everybody came early.
The parking lots opened six hours before the puck drop and the red-clad fans poured their way in for an afternoon of tailgating before the scheduled 3 p.m. local start. The calendar said mid-February, but the smells, sounds and sights hinted of mid-November.
The portable grills were in midseason form. Burgers and brats were the predominant food choice of the day, and there was plenty of beer to wash it all down. Kids of all ages threw footballs around and even a few street hockey games broke out on the lined pavement.
Inside the stadium's atrium, just past the statues of Vince Lombardi and Curly Lambeau, fans waited in a long line to get their photo taken next to the Packers' three Lombardi Trophies and the visiting Stanley Cup.
Most of the fans soaking up the pregame festivities may have traded in their Brett Favre football jerseys for a hockey sweater of choice, but for all intents and purposes, 1265 Lombardi Avenue had turned itself into Camp Randall North.
Only hockey was the game of this day in Titletown.
The temporary rink, which went from the north end zone to just shy of the opposite 40-yard line, was built by a Texas-based company that specializes in temporary ice rink construction. The 200-by-85 sheet of ice required 32 miles of tubing that circulated 2,200 gallons of antifreeze solution at a temperature of 10 degrees.
On top of the tubing and coolant were approximately 17,000 gallons of water used to create more than four inches of ice.
On top of the ice were two college hockey teams desperately in need of two points.
Ohio State, the preseason choice to win the CCHA, came in just 4-7-1 since January and the injury-depleted Buckeyes' NCAA Tournament hopes were fading fast.
The host Badgers, who spent seven weeks as the No. 1 team in the country before starting goaltender Brian Elliott went down with an injury on Jan. 17, came in having lost five of their last six.
When the puck dropped at 3:14 p.m., it was a relatively comfortable 28 degrees with a wind chill just two degrees cooler.
It looked like it would be a Wisconsin day right from the start when Badgers captain Adam Burish, a Madison native who played his junior hockey across the street for the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers, beat Ohio State goalie Dave Caruso just 23 seconds into the game.
"The guys were nervous just driving to the building today," Burish said. "Walking out of the tunnel you would think that guys would be whooping it up more but it was really quiet. Guys were like, 'Here we go, what's it going to be like, what's going to happen out there?'
"So to score a goal early always helps, especially in a big game like this. It settles guys down."
The Buckeyes appeared to tie the game at 7:34 of the first, but the apparent goal by Sean Collins was waved off by referee Jon Campion because UW goalie Shane Connelly dislodged the left post from its mooring when he stumbled to square up after pushing a shot back into the slot to the waiting Collins.
Ohio State did tie it up at 1 in the second period when a shot by Dave Barton deflected off Badger defenseman Davis Drewiske just outside the blue line and then proceeded to bounce, flutter and fool Connelly.
The redirections continued when UW took a 2-1 lead at 16:57 of the second after Kyle Klubertanz, another former Gambler, fired a slap shot from the slot that deflected off Matt McIlvane and past Caruso.
By the time the third period began, daylight was gone and the Lambeau lights created some interesting shadows on the ice. Several of the players took a cue from their football brethren and donned eye black to diminish the glare.
The Badgers increased the lead to 3-1 at the 7-minute mark of the final period when Ryan MacMurchy skated out from behind the goal and fired a pass through the deep slot that was deposited behind Caruso by Andrew Joudrey.
Ohio State made it interesting with a goal at 15:57 to cut the lead to 3-2, but an empty-netter by Robbie Earl at 19:02 provided the final margin of victory for the Badgers (20-7-2).
After the final handshakes and the postgame ceremony, Wisconsin's Jeff Likens led his teammates out of the rink, through the grass, over the plywood and into the north end zone for a Lambeau Leap with the UW student section.
For the Badger players, it was the perfect capper to an unbelievable weekend.
"You just can't put it into words," Burish said. "I know I haven't stopped smiling yet. This whole game was great for the program. Every time you put that sweater on you're representing all the great players that have played here, all the championships that have been won. It is a special place at Wisconsin and the following we have is second to none."
Even Eaves came away impressed with the atmosphere inside of Lambeau, which included a football staple that's usually reserved for Madison: House of Pain's "Jump Around."
"The energy of the people and the vastness of almost 41,000 people was impressive," Eaves said. "The noise level was greater than I thought it would be.
"When the coaching staff came out for the third, and they had the 'Jump Around' going on, I felt my body start moving a bit because that's the type of energy that was out there."
Up next for Wisconsin is the expected return of Elliott in goal next weekend at Michigan Tech. And then two more weekend series before the WCHA playoffs begin.
"We as a coaching staff looked at this as an energizer for the rest of the season," Eaves said. "This time of year is kind of like the dog days of the season, so hopefully this will springboard us into the last weeks of the regular season and into the playoffs."
And the NCAA Tournament could mean a return trip to Green Bay as the Midwest Regional will be played across the street at the Resch Center.
For Ohio State (14-14-4), it's on to a tough road game at CCHA leader Miami on Tuesday before closing out the final two weeks of the regular season. And while the Buckeyes aren't conceding anything in terms of a possible postseason run, coach John Markell was already thinking ahead to the possibility of playing an outdoor game on his campus in the future.
"I'd like to host one someday," Markell said. "It's a wonderful event. I think they knew the level of support they would get from the people of Green Bay, and to be able to pull something like this off and put hockey at the forefront, for a day at least, is great."
Was the Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic gimmicky? Sure.
Was it good for the college game? That depends on your perspective, but for a sport that's still trying to expand beyond its parochial heritage, it's hard to argue against the additional exposure that events like this can provide.
Either way, a smiling Badger Bob was right again. It was a great day for hockey.
David Albright is the senior coordinator for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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