There are certain things a University of Michigan student might be
expected to memorize in his years in Ann Arbor: an e.e. cummings
poem, a mathematical formula or two, a few economic principles
and the cheer that serenaded Michigan State defenseman Jared
Nightingale at Yost Ice Arena in the first period of a game last
Valentine's Day. As Nightingale stepped into the penalty box, the
student sections on the opposite side of the rink roared--as they
regularly do--"See ya! Chump, d--k, wuss, d-----bag, a--hole,
p--ck, cheater, b--ch, whore, c------ker." While embarrassingly
profane, the chant was easier on the ears than the 2 1/2 hours of
abuse directed at Spartans goalie Matt Migliaccio, who, Michigan
fan sentiment notwithstanding, was neither a sieve nor ugly.
There is a natural rivalry between the massive state universities
a mere 64 miles apart, one that permeates their football and
basketball games. But given the physical nature of the sport and
the intimacy of the settings, Michigan-Michigan State hockey
exists on a higher--or, given the vulgarity, lower--plane. Of
course, choreographed calumnies are directed toward all teams
visiting Yost, but a special zeal is reserved for Michigan State,
a school whose students, according to another ritual Michigan
chant, "Can't read, can't write." This slander should have been
forever dispelled in 1998, after Wolverines coach Red Berenson
benched goaltender Marty Turco for a game at Michigan State
because Turco had cut a class. "I was skating in the warmups, and
I heard about it," says Turco, the NCAA's alltime winningest
netminder, now with the Dallas Stars. "There must have been 15
signs on the glass at Munn [Ice Arena] that said HOW'S SCHOOL
TODAY, TURCO?" Each word was spelled impeccably.
"They'd say they were the smart school, and we'd say we were the
party school," says Jason Woolley, the Detroit Red Wings
defenseman who played at Michigan State from 1988-89 through
'90-91. "I had no problem with that. I just remember that every
game against them was like the seventh game of an NHL playoff
series. You know how you learn to hate the guys on the other team
when it's a long series? Well, we felt that way toward them every
Michigan has the 107,000-seat Big House for football, but it also
has a 6,637-seat nuthouse in Yost, built in 1923. Michigan State
has the more sedate, 30-year-old, 6,470-seat Munn, where there
have been 320 consecutive sellouts. No ticket on either campus is
tougher to come by.
That has not always been the case. Since the first game between
the schools, on Jan. 11, 1922, the fortunes of the respective
programs rarely have followed parallel arcs. Michigan State
dropped hockey in 1932 during the Depression, but Michigan
soldiered on. The Wolverines won six NCAA titles between 1948 and
'56 and another in 1964, but by the late '60s their program was
in decline. The Spartans, who resumed playing in 1950, surged
ahead of their rivals in the early '80s under Ron Mason, a dapper
man who coached a conservative playing style and won 924 games,
the most in collegiate history. "When I first got here [in '79],
Michigan was an excellent team, far better than we were," says
Mason, 64, who gave up coaching in 2002 to become the Spartans'
athletic director. "Then we got going, and they fell by the
wayside. In my first 10 years the Michigan games didn't have the
excitement they do today. Then Red [Berenson] came, and after
five or six years his teams started to get good. That's when the
rivalry really started."
Berenson was a two-time All-America center who played his final
game for Michigan in the 1962 NCAA tournament in Utica, N.Y.,
then was driven to Boston Garden to debut with the Montreal
Canadiens the following night. When he returned to Ann Arbor as
Wolverines coach in 1984, memories of his days on campus must
have been fuzzy. He showed up at his first Michigan golf outing
wearing pants that were green--a Spartans color. "I was greeted
with, 'Geez, where'd you get those?'" Berenson recalls. "That was
the last time I wore them." The right hue came before the right
mix. Berenson had losing records in his first three seasons;
meanwhile, the Spartans won the 1986 NCAA title. "Michigan State
was the benchmark then," he says. "That was a model program, one
we were trying to emulate."
Two unrelated events boosted the Wolverines' program. The first
came in February 1989, when Ann Arbor attorney Paul Gallagher
suggested that the Wolverines wear the football team's famed wing
design on their helmets. The maize stripes gave Michigan hockey
an identity more striking than even Berenson's renowned up-tempo
style. "Those ugly things," says Ryan Miller, the Buffalo Sabres
goaltender who won the 2001 Hobey Baker Award as a Spartans
sophomore. "You see those things flashing around and you're irked
before the game starts."
The second was lifted directly from Cornell, whose fans arrived
en masse for a 1991 NCAA playoff series, armed with chants that
were untoward and unnerving. The next season Michigan supporters
began taking up those chants. Suddenly the "Go Green, Go White!"
that had reverberated through Yost whenever State and its fans
visited was replaced with a maize-and-blue--emphasis on
blue--passion. "My parents are a little hesitant to bring family
to games," said then Michigan senior Andy Burnes, a defenseman
from Battle Creek, last season. "They'll hear things they won't
hear in a PG-13 movie."
There have been other moments not suited for the impressionable,
especially the 20-on-20 brawl at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena in
1991. (In addition to facing each other at Munn and Yost, the
teams play at least once each year in the Red Wings' 20,000-seat
home.) One of the Wolverines' Toronto-area recruits was at the
game, and as Berenson tells the story, the boy's father was
pointing out that one advantage of college hockey in the States
compared with junior hockey in Canada was the absence of
fighting--then all hell broke loose.
Michigan State and Michigan have reached the Frozen Four a
combined 12 times since 1992, a better reflection of the
competitiveness that has marked the series over the past 15
years. Their best game might have been on Nov. 4, 2000, when the
Spartans scored early and hung on to beat No. 1-ranked and
previously undefeated Michigan 1-0 at Yost behind Miller's 31
saves. The most storied certainly occurred on Oct. 6, 2001--the
so-called Cold War--when the teams played before an NCAA-record
crowd of 74,554 on a rink built at midfield of Spartan Stadium.
Mason says they could have sold 100,000 tickets. "At the skate
that morning we were firing pucks over the [football] goalposts,"
says former Michigan defenseman Mike Komisarek, now a Canadien.
"Cool. It was like playing pond hockey." The score was 3-3,
typical in that only 15 of 58 meetings since 1990 have been
decided by more than two goals.
Before their only meeting at Munn last season, a riveting 5-3
Michigan State win, the Spartans screened a highlight tape from
past games against the Wolverines. The dressing room was silent.
"That old footage from the '50s and '60s, the progression through
the years--it was amazing to watch," says John-Michael Liles, a
senior on that team and now a Colorado Avalanche defenseman. "I
was thinking that down the road we were going to be part of the
highlights. This rivalry demanded the utmost of us: talent,
smarts, physical play. Long after we're gone, Michigan-Michigan
State will carry on, and all of us can say, 'That was one of the
greatest things I've ever been a part of.'"
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"You know how you learn to hate the other guys in a long
series?" says Woolley, a former Spartan. "We felt that way toward
Michigan every game."