Michigan will be playing its first outdoor hockey game in nearly four years on Saturday when the Wolverines take on the No. 6 Irish at Notre Dame Stadium.
It will be Michigan’s eighth outdoor game in program history, made possible with the NHL’s Winter Classic being held on New Year’s Day at the historic Notre Dame Stadium where Boston defeated the Chicago Blackhawks, 4-2, in 35-degree weather before 76,126 fans.
The faceoff for the Michigan-Notre Dame game has been pushed back an hour to 4:30 p.m. (NBC Sports Network) due to player concerns as it relates to sunny conditions.
Second-year head coach Mel Pearson held Michigan's practice at that time Friday to get used to the conditions.
“They kicked the game back an hour tomorrow because of the weather, because it’s going to be too sunny, too nice with the glare on the ice with the way the stadium sits and the way the sun is. We’ll be playing at 4:30, 4:40 so we kicked back our practice an hour today to get used to it,” Pearson said Friday. “It’s probably the warmest, the sunniest that we’ve played in an outdoor game.
“It’s pretty cool, one of those iconic stadiums that has a lot of history and our players will be part of history, playing in the first outdoor college game there."
Pearson was an assistant coach under Red Berenson during Michigan’s first four outdoor games, then was head coach at Michigan Tech during the GLI games at Comerica Park five years ago.
Pearson talked of the conditions.
“The ice is good, really good,” Pearson said. “They covered it today from noon to 3:15, covered it with an insulation material because of that sun and they got it off and we got on it and it was good.”
So, will the Wolverines be wearing any extra clothing in the outdoor game?
“It won’t be like Boston-Chicago the other day. Just normal, probably what you’d wear for a normal game,” Pearson said.
Michigan (6-7-6) and Notre Dame (12-5-1) have developed a strong rivalry during the past couple of decades when they competed in the CCHA and again last season when the Irish joined the Big Ten.
Notre Dame won the Big Ten championship, then defeated Michigan, 4-3, in the Frozen Four semifinal game on a goal with 5.2 seconds left in regulation last April in Minneapolis.
“I think Notre Dame coming back in the same league with us adds to the rivalry,” Pearson said. “It’s a healthy rivalry. It’s a good rivalry and we’ve had great games with them. We split with them earlier this year. I think they got us, like 3-2 in the series last year."
The teams split a series in Ann Arbor on Nov. 9-10 with Notre Dame winning the finale, 6-2, to start an 8-1-0 run heading into the outdoor game. The Irish are coming off a 4-0 shutout of Boston College New Year’s Eve at the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend.
Michigan hasn’t fared as well since the loss to the Irish, winning just once in regulation play in its last 10 games. The Wolverines played overtime games in the Great Lakes Invitational earlier this week at Little Caesars Arena, falling in a shootout to Michigan Tech in the semifinal and tying Michigan State in the consolation game.
But the Wolverines turned their season around in the second half last season, entering a series with Notre Dame in early January with an 8-10-2 record before becoming the nation’s highest scoring team the rest of the way to earn a Frozen Four appearance.
The Wolverines will be without multiple star players, including sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes and sophomore forward Josh Norris, who are playing for Team USA in the World Junior tournament in Vancouver.
“We’re about the same point-wise as we were last year, about the same type of record and we’re missing a couple of our best players,” Pearson said. “We’re going to have to find a way to ramp up our offense and a lot of that starts with our power play. Our power play has sort of gotten stale the last three or four weeks and if we could get that one goal here or there we could probably be 12-6-2 or something like that, but it’s a fine line.
“We’ve played well. We’ve out-chanced teams. We’ve outshot teams, but we haven’t outscored them so we have to play that perfect game defensively, but I like our goaltending. Our goaltending has really come on and improved since the start of the year, but again the goal scoring is the area we have to get better at.”
Sure, it’s been a long time since Michigan and Michigan State battled to a 3-3 tie before 74,544 fans at Spartan Stadium in the Cold War game on Oct. 6, 2001, to start the frenzy of outdoor games that now consists of NHL Winter Classic games played on New Year's Eve with other games mixed in.
In fact, it’s been nearly a decade since Michigan defeated the Spartans, 5-0, before a world record crowd of 104,173 in The Big Chill at The Big House back on Dec. 11, 2010, but it will be a new experience for the current group of Wolverines.
“None of our players have played in a collegiate outdoor game so this will be the first time and you could tell today since they were like little kids,” Pearson said. “I had to kick them off the ice three times because they didn’t want to get off.”
Junior forward Will Lockwood and senior captain and defenseman Joseph Cecconi agree with their coach.
“It’s a pretty surreal feeling,” Lockwood said of playing outdoors. “It really hit everyone after practice. We are going to be playing in such a great environment in a good atmosphere and we are just really looking forward to it. It’s a huge rivalry with Notre Dame. Everyone knows the importance of this game and it’s a game we’ve been looking forward to for a long time.”
Said Cecconi: “It’s going to be a fun game with it being outdoors. The ice is in great shape, the guys are looking forward to it and it should be an exciting game.”
Michigan in outdoor games
►Michigan 3, Michigan State 3 — Oct. 6, 2001 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing (Cold War)
►Wisconsin 3, Michigan 2 — Feb. 6, 2010 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison
►Michigan 5, Michigan State 0 — Dec. 11, 2010 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor (Big Chill at The Big House)
►Michigan 4, Ohio State 1 — Dec. 15, 2012 at Progressive Field in Cleveland. (Frozen Diamond Faceoff).
►Western Michigan 3, Michigan 2 (OT) — Dec. 27, 2013 at Comerica Park in Detroit (GLI semifinal)
►Michigan State 3, Michigan 0 — Dec. 28, 2013 at Comerica Park in Detroit (GLI consolation game)
►Michigan 4, Michigan State 1 — Feb. 7, 2015 at Soldier Field in Chicago