By Stu Hackel
They're calling it "The Big Chill at the Big House," and it's going to draw a big crowd.
Before there was a Winter Classic, even before the first NHL outdoor game between the Canadiens and Oilers in 2003, there was "The Cold War" between long-time rivals Michigan and Michigan State in October, 2001, that drew 74,544 fans to Spartan Stadium in East Lansing and ended in a 3-3 tie. The game set a record for the largest crowd at a hockey game until last May when the opening game of the IIHF World Championship between Germany and the USA drew 77,803 to Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
But this Saturday, the two teams that started it all will meet outdoors again, this time at "The Big House" -- Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. More than 100,000 fans will be there to smash the attendance record and see the Wolverines and Spartans go at each other again with no roof above them.
Michigan coach and former NHL star Red Berenson was the first person to skate on the ice once it was put down in Michigan Stadium and he's fairly astonished that the Big House will be the setting for this big game. (video). "I thought I'd seen everything in hockey," Berenson told James Murphy.
And while the Winter Classic gets lots of holiday hype (including the HBO series which debuts next Wednesday), the best hockey you might see around the New Year could be played at the IIHF World Junior Championships. Canadians have tuned into this tournament, which starts on Dec. 26, in record numbers each year on TSN. It remains sadly underappreciated in the States, but for anyone who wants to literally see tomorrow's stars today, the WJC is the place.
The proof is that 23 players who played in the WJC last year in Saskatoon have already have skated in the NHL, including the Ducks' Cam Fowler (U.S), Kyle Palmieri (U.S.) and Luca Sbisa (Switzerland); the Flames' Alexander Burmistrov (Russia); the Bruins' Jordan Caron (Canada); the Sabres' Luke Adam (Canada); the Blackhawks' Jeremy Morin (U.S); Nikita Filatov (Russia) of the Blue Jackets; Taylor Hall (Canada), Jordan Eberle (Canada) and Magnus Paajarvi (Sweden) of the Oilers; the Kings' Brayden Schenn (Canada); the Wild's Marco Scandella (Canada); the Devils' Mattias Tedenby (Sweden); Nino Niederreiter (Switzerland) and Travis Hamonic (Canada) of the Islanders; the Rangers' Derek Stepan (U.S.); the Coyotes' Oliver Ekman-Larsson, (Sweden); Alex Pietrangelo (Canada) and Stefan Della Rovere (Canada) of the Blues; the Maple Leafs' Nazem Kadri (Canada); and Marcus Johansson (Sweden) and John Carlson (U.S., who scored the tournament-winning OT goal) of the Capitals.
This year's WJC will be played in Buffalo, and the U.S. team is the defending champion, having broken Canada's five-year stranglehold on the gold medal. Eight players from that team are on this year's preliminary Team USA roster.
The NHL Network again will televise the WJC in the U.S. and lead into the opening games on the 26th with a replay of last year's gold medal game. Check it out.