Beloved Memories Reside in Game's Roots
Dec. 9, 2010
This week, the Spartan hockey program will prepare for the Big Chill at the Big House, a showdown with archrival Michigan at Michigan Stadium which is expected to draw a world-record crowd of nearly 110,000 spectators. Nearly a decade ago, the Michigan State athletic department staged the first modern outdoor game, and it has grown from novelty to a now-annual event in the National Hockey League. Michigan State successfully hosting this event was the genesis for no fewer than 20 outdoor events executed or planned for the 2010-11 season since MSU put on the first one on Oct. 6, 2001.
Come back to www.msuspartans.com every day this week to revisit that inaugural event through the recollections of current and former Spartan players, staff, and administrators who helped give birth to one of the beloved now-annual events of a hockey season.
Before there were Zambonis, before there were refrigeration units, before there were indoor ice rinks, there were frozen ponds and lakes. The birthplace of hockey was not in 20,000-seat arenas, but on the frozen bodies of water across North America. And every year, from children learning how to skate, to veterans well past their prime, people brave the elements to skate on their local pond. The opportunity for hockey enthusiasts to play the game in its simplest form is what makes the frigid winter months bearable, if not exciting.
The passion hockey fans share for playing their game outdoors was a driving force behind the creation of the Cold War. MSU assistant coach Tom Newton said that after all the months of build up for the historic game, once it started, all he saw was kids playing pond hockey.
"At that point in time, there was nothing to compare [the Cold War] to," Newton said. "But what I did compare it to was when you watch little kids play out on the pond, and they're just out there having fun and smiling and they're trying as hard as they can. I really felt like you could see the players in that game, they were like little kids. They had smiles on their faces, they were playing hard, they were playing tough, but there was a sense that it was really a special experience for them - and they were enjoying it."
The Spartans' captain for the Cold War game, Adam Hall, said that he and his teammates couldn't help but be reminded of their younger days that they spent skating on ponds.
"I grew up with my friends on backyard rinks," said Hall, who also skated in the NHL's Winter Classic as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. "Friends would have backyard rinks and ponds. I remember jogging a mile and a half to one's house with a duffle bag with gloves and skates in it, just so we could skate in his backyard.
"Being out on the lake, you never wanted to miss the net because if you did the puck would go all the way across the ice and you'd have to go over there to get it. It's a lot of fun to feel like that again."
Now, as the Spartans prepare for their second outdoor game in school history, the new group gets to reminisce about the same thing. Coach Rick Comley said that while he was growing up in Stratford, Ontario, there wasn't anything else to do.
"Get home after school, put your skates on, and walk in snow banks to wherever you're going to skate, and then come back when it got too dark to find the puck," Comley said with a smile. "Day after day, every single day, I don't know if I missed a day skating outside in the winter months."
Which is why Comley said on Tuesday that he wants his players to embrace the opportunity of playing hockey outdoors. In fact, the Spartans' coach wishes his student-athletes would be able to do it more often.
"I don't think we have a single person who has played a game outdoors," Comley said. "Now some have probably skated, but I bet there are some who haven't skated outside. It's just a lost part of the game. We live in an area where there's no predictability of outdoor ice. If you grow up in northern Minnesota or someplace, those kids still grow up playing outdoors.
"I think there's a gap there. One of the concerns we all have in hockey is that there's way too much structure right now. Some kids have never been on the ice without coaches and referees. I think the thrill of pond hockey is that if the puck goes in a snow bank, you go get it. If you want the puck, you better work hard to get it, because the older kids aren't going to give it to you. These kids don't have that."
While the sporadic weather in Michigan made it difficult for many of the Spartans to play pond hockey growing up, they seized their opportunities. For sophomore forward Anthony Hayes, snow days were spent on a pond in front of a local church with his neighborhood friends.
"Basically every snow day, everybody came with their shovels and their skates," Hayes said. "It was a blast; kids that you wouldn't really see out of school, they'd come by, and it was just a great way to meet with the neighborhood kids. Everybody was on an equal playing field playing there."
Captain Torey Krug said that the pond was where he reunited with friends after moving away from home for junior hockey.
"Two Christmases ago I jumped on the pond with a few of my friends," the sophomore defenseman said. "That was my first year away from home, and I hadn't been able to hang out with them for a while, so it was a good opportunity for me to get back on the pond and show them the skills I had developed while I was in Indiana.
"It's always fun, and it's especially fun to get out there and have some backyard brawls with your friends and your brothers."
Hayes said that he is looking forward to relieving his pond hockey days when the Spartans take to the outdoor ice at Michigan Stadium on Saturday.
"I just think it's going to bring back a lot of feelings from when we were young," Hayes said. "When we weren't playing for a college scholarship, we weren't playing to get drafted, your parents just gave you a little bit of free time so you rounded up the boys from the local neighborhood and you all went down and played. It was as pure as the sport will ever get, and I think a lot of those feelings are going to come flooding back come Friday and Saturday. I can't wait for it."
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