For generations, Saturdays at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor have held a special place in the hearts of families bonding over Wolverines’ football.
As part of the storied tradition that dates back to 1879, names like “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, Jim Harbaugh, Tom Brady and Charles Woodson have run out of the tunnel and touched the famous banner before thrilling throngs of maize-and-blue faithful with some of the more unforgettable moments in the history of NCAA athletics.
Leave it to Michigan’s senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick to understand what simply standing on the field means to someone who grew up a little more than one hour away from Ann Arbor.
“It’s unbelievable,” said the Sterling Heights native. “I grew up as a Michigan fan, and I was first a football fan. Guys like Tim Biakabutuka and guys like that when I was younger, listening to the game on the radio or watching on TV, it meant a lot to me. Charles Woodson going down the sideline in 1997 was one of the highlights of my young life.”
Hunwick unexpectedly found himself at the center of another unforgettable moment, flawlessly guarding goal creases situated on Michigan Stadium’s 15-yard lines in a 5-0 shutout of intrastate rival Michigan State on Dec. 11.
Named the starter after fellow goaltender Bryan Hogan was injured in pregame warm-ups, Hunwick stole the show in front of a record-breaking crowd of 113,411 — a crowd that will go down as the largest to watch a hockey game and one that will remain, for the time being anyway, the largest ever to watch an NCAA sporting event — all those unforgettable Michigan football memories included. Almost a decade after Michigan and Michigan State kicked off the outdoor hockey craze in a contest at Spartan Stadium known as “The Cold War,” this most recent event, “The Big Chill at the Big House” took outdoor hockey to a new level. Beyond the record-shattering crowd, a fireworks show, perfect ice and ideal weather helped make The Big Chill an event no one will forget.
“It’s unbelievable, it means so much to me,” said Hunwick, who stopped all 34 Spartan shots he faced. “I can’t really put into words how great of a feeling it is playing on the same ice, slash field as all of those guys.”
The Cold War Standard
While outdoor hockey has become commonplace in the modern era, with the NHL’s Winter Classic proving wildly successful each New Year’s Day and college and minor league games sprouting up across the country, it wasn’t always that way.
While it had been attempted a few times before, including an NHL contest in Las Vegas, no one came as close to perfecting the concept as Michigan State did in 2001. Spartan Stadium was packed to the gills with 74,544 fans, and the ice was littered with future NHLers including Michigan State’s Ryan Miller, Jim Slater, Adam Hall and Duncan Keith, as well as Mike Cammalleri, Eric Nystrom and David Moss.
Central Collegiate Hockey Association Commissioner Tom Anastos, known as one of college hockey’s premier marketers, credits Michigan State’s success as a main reason outdoor hockey contests have taken off.
“I really wasn’t surprised [outdoor hockey has flourished] because that event came off so incredibly well,” Anastos said.
“As I said, that was a bold move. I don’t know if anyone ever thought of it, but it’s one thing to think of something, but it’s another thing to step out and pull something like that off. The roots of the sport are outdoors; this is a big part of the culture and history of the sport. There’s not a player you’re going to ask who doesn’t love this environment. It’s been a great sell so far, and I hope it will continue.”
A New Standard for Outdoor Hockey
With the groundwork laid by the Cold War, the numerous Winter Classics and other outdoor games, The Big Chill took outdoor hockey to a new level. With pyrotechnics surrounding the ice to celebrate Michigan goals, and the newly-remodeled stadium projecting more noise than ever down onto the field, each of Michigan’s five goals was a moment to remember.
Freshman Jon Merill opened the game with two first-period goals that gave his team a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. Forward Carl Hagelin, one of college hockey’s top players, and David Wohlberg also scored for the Wolverines.
While it’s tough enough to see their team give up a goal at Yost Ice Arena with 7,000 fans counting the goals and chanting in celebration, it was even more pronounced with tens of thousands of Wolverines’ fans partaking in the goal count chant at the stadium. The noise was deafening at times, and continued to build to the final minute when the crowd, per usual, asked the PA announcer how much time was left and thanked him when he announced that one minute was left.
One Yost Ice Arena tradition, when Michigan has a sizable lead on opponents, has been for the announcer to tell the crowd that they’re welcome, always drawing a big cheer. With a 5-0 lead in hand, he did the same, and drew an even louder reaction than normal when he then thanked those in attendance for being part of the largest crowd ever to watch a hockey game.
All in all, Michigan coach Red Berenson summed it up when he began his press conference with a simple statement.
“Pretty good show, eh?” said Berenson, who is spending his 27th year behind the Wolverines bench.
No one was arguing with the legendary coach on that one.
Now that the largest stadium in the United States has been packed beyond capacity for a hockey game, one question remains: What’s next?
Outdoor hockey games have been a great blessing for the sport, helping to draw in new fans and giving players and coaches memories to last a lifetime. Hockey’s roots are on the ponds and in the backyards of North America, and being so close to those roots puts a smile on everyone’s face.
After last year’s Camp Randall classic between Wisconsin and Michigan, Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves suggested it could be an every-four-years event, so that every player has a chance to play, and every student has a chance to attend one. Michigan’s camp echoed those sentiments as a possibility as well.
Whatever it is that comes next, be it more outdoor games, or different formats, perhaps ones even unfathomable to most now, for competition, it’s going to have to be something pretty special to continue to raise the bar as it has been since Michigan State set the standard in 2001.
“I don’t know what’s next,” said Anastos, who’s constantly thinking of ways to advance the game of hockey. “It’s just truly amazing when you think back, that when this was all started in 2001 there was no blueprint for it. Michigan State at that time made an incredibly bold move to even try this. So when Michigan decided to do it, I think they had certain expectations, and, in my opinion, this had to far exceed what anybody could have imagined.
“I guess never say never, right? But it’s going to have to be something special to top this — this was pretty incredible.”