by Jen Gunnels

Hockey fans are descending on Ann Arbor, Michigan this week and preparing to shatter the attendance record for an outdoor hockey game when Michigan faces Michigan State on Saturday in the Big Chill at the Big House. The puck will drop at 3 p.m. inside Michigan Stadium in front of an anticipated sellout crowd of 109,901, smashing the current record of 77,803 set earlier this year in Germany as part of the IIHF World Championship.

“We’ve been waiting for this and looking forward to it, and now we can say it’s our next game,” said Michigan head coach Red Berenson. “It’s going to be magical.”

The outdoor game between the rival schools is a rematch of the first outdoor hockey game in the modern hockey era, “The Cold War”, played at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 6, 2001. The Spartans and Wolverines skated to a 3-3 overtime tie in that game, in front of 75,544 fans. The success of that event inspired the National Hockey League to attempt an outdoor hockey game a few years later when the Edmonton Oilers played the Montreal Canadians in what was dubbed the “Heritage Classic,” drawing 57,000 fans. Since then, the NHL’s outdoor hockey game has become an annual event called the Winter Classic, and three other NCAA hockey games have since taken place outdoors—at Lambeau Field in 2006, and Camp Randall Stadium and Fenway Park in early 2010.

“It’s college hockey and the college sports spirit that really got this going,” Berenson said. “It’s the people that bought the tickets that have really made this work. They’re the people that have supported it, and it’s just another tribute to college hockey and college sports.”

Michigan Stadium has essentially become the headquarters of a hockey festival in Ann Arbor this week, where more than 25 youth, high school and college games are being played on the ice leading up to Saturday’s main event. A fan fest, fireworks and pregame flyover are scheduled around Saturday’s game, and the ice will be open for a public skate on Sunday to conclude the week’s festivities.

“If you ask the people that have been involved in all the things that have to happen for this event to go off as well as it will, there’s a lot more than we can talk about today,” Berenson said. “But I’m really impressed with our athletic department’s commitment, the follow-through. Now the rest is up to our team.”

Michigan enters the game at 9-5-4 overall, ranked No. 12 in this week’s USA TODAY/USA Hockey men’s poll after splitting last weekend’s series with Ohio State. The Spartans also split their series last weekend with Ferris State and are 6-8-3 overall. This will be the first meeting between the rival teams this season. The two split their six games last season, with Michigan State winning the first three meetings and Michigan taking the final three.

“It’s such a great rivalry that once the puck is dropped and you’re lined up against that jersey, there’s no question that the kids are going to play,” said Michigan State head coach Rick Comley. “It’s the combination of factors—the fact that it’s outdoors, the fact that it’s Michigan, the fact that there’s going to be 100,000 people there—it doesn’t get any better than that.”

The game will be an important CCHA conference matchup, particularly for the Wolverines who currently sit third in conference standings, just two points behind conference-leading Miami (Ohio) and one point behind second-place Notre Dame. Both teams are aware of the importance of the game despite all of the distractions surrounding the event.

“We’re playing to win the game,” Berenson said. “We’re putting our best team on the ice and we’re going to do everything we can to have a good game and have a chance to win. These games are important so we can’t take it lightly and we won’t.”

Although outdoor hockey is not a new concept—coaches from both teams reflected this week on their childhood days of playing pond hockey—the sport has moved almost exclusively to indoor rinks. For many players participating on Saturday, the outdoor game will be a new experience and a new challenge.

“The thrill of playing out there will go away quick once the puck is dropped and the game starts,” Berenson said. “You realize you’re chasing a player, you’re trying to skate your fastest and you’re skating against the wind, you’re not used to that, and your hands are so cold you can hardly feel your stick. As the game goes on I think you get into the game, but the elements and the temperatures and the wind, all those things can be a factor.”

Michigan has been taking advantage of its home ice with practices on the outdoor rink every day this week. The Spartans will take to the outdoor ice for the first time on Friday.

“I think one of the key things is just getting them to stop looking around and find out where the puck is,” Comley said. “To me, if you’re a player, how much more perfect can it get? I think the thrill and the experience is just going to be second to nothing.”

The game will be broadcast live nationally on the Big Ten Network and on Leafs TV in Canada, as well as webcast on FoxSportsDetroit.com. Temperatures at game time are expected to be in the low 30’s, and whether from the comfort of their own home or chilly Michigan Stadium, hockey fans around the globe will be turning their attention on Saturday to the Big Chill at the Big House.

“It’s going to be watched worldwide; it will be the focal point of hockey on Saturday,” Comley said. “Nothing could be better for the two schools or our sport and college hockey in general.”