Feb. 15, 2013
By Craig Chval
On March 3, 1875, Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal hosted the first modern hockey game by introducing two revolutionary aspects to a classic outdoor ice sport. First, the match was played with a wooden puck instead of a ball. And second, the game was played inside.
Although hockey has become an indoor sport since that fateful day in 1875, the game’s roots belong in pick-up matches of shinny on frozen ponds. When Victoria Skating Rink decided to host a game indoors, it was a novel, bizarre concept.
Yet 126 years later, when Michigan and Michigan State decided to play a regulation game in Spartan Stadium in October 2001, hockey’s return to the outdoors was billed as equally innovative. And it spurned a flurry of games exposed to the elements, including Frozen Fenway in 2012 and the NHL’s annual Winter Classic.
With 21st century technology, ice hockey has been able to return from under protective arenas, filling such venues as Lambeau Field, Michigan Stadium, and Wrigley Field. This Sunday (Feb. 17), Notre Dame will play Miami outside in another historic stadium: Chicago’s Soldier Field.
Organized by Intersport, a Chicago-based sports marketing agency, the OfficeMax Hockey City Classic features two conference matchups: Notre Dame-Miami at noon CT and Minnesota-Wisconsin at 3:30.
“I’ve been at Intersport for four years and I think the idea came a lot earlier than that – after outdoor hockey with the `Cold War’ between Michigan and Michigan State had happened and a couple other events had popped up,” says Drew Russell, Vice-President of Sports Properties at Intersport.
Intersport discussed planning an outdoor game with the Chicago Blackhawks a few years after that 2001 Michigan-Michigan State game. However, the Blackhawks’ change in ownership in 2007 and the creation of the Winter Classic in 2008 sidelined plans for a Soldier Field game.
As outdoor college games became more popular – with games at Fenway Park and Michigan Stadium in 2010 and Connecticut’s Rentschler Field in 2011 – Intersport contacted Soldier Field about a college doubleheader.
“They basically said, `Hey, we’d love to have an event like this,'” Russell says. “And then once we got word from them, the first place we called was actually Notre Dame.”
Russell called senior associate athletics director Tom Nevala, the administrative contact for Notre Dame hockey about the idea. When Russell called two years ago, the Irish were still playing in the Joyce Center Fieldhouse. With opening of the Compton Family Ice Arena less than a year away, Notre Dame felt that its scheduling options at the time were limited.
“The idea of playing in Soldier Field, we’ve been talking about this for six or seven years,” Nevala says. “But the way the schedule always works out, it was never the right game on the right day to make it work for us to host the game.”
So Russell contacted Miami University to gauge their interest. As it turned out, the best series for the RedHawks was the weekend of Feb. 16, 2013 – the time slated for the Irish to come to town. With the first game of the doubleheader scheduled, Intersport added Minnesota-Wisconsin to the slate.
The game is Notre Dame’s first outdoor contest since becoming a varsity program. It is also the first hockey game every played at Soldier Field, which opened in 1924.
“We’re in a unique situation here in Chicago where we don’t really have a hometown college team. But what’s also unique about it is we have such strong alumni bases here for the teams that are participating. And if Chicago does have a hometown team, it’s Notre Dame,” Russell says. “Miami, Minnesota, and Wisconsin all have more than 10,000 alums living in the Chicagoland area, so it was just a great mixture of teams in addition to the fact that all those teams have seen significant success over the past few years.”
Once the teams were set, Intersport started tackling the challenge of creating an actual ice hockey rink inside Soldier Field. Although outdoor games have picked up in popularity over the last decade, there isn’t exactly an industry-standard procedure. Intersport hired Ice Rink Events, a company well versed in building rinks in unconventional venues.
“They build ice rinks, whether it’s for hockey or ice skating, all over the world: Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico City – places you’d never expect,” Russell says. “We really relied on them and some key vendor relationships that they have to come in and make the playing field level, and it took two weeks to build the foundation for the rink itself.”
That literal “leveling” of the playing field was the chief obstacle for Ice Rink Events. Football fields have a crown in the middle – the sidelines are lower than the middle of the field to drain better. Obviously, a hockey surface can’t have a crown.
A layer of plywood, a layer of contoured Styrofoam, another layer of Styrofoam, and two more layers of plywood later, and Soldier Field was good to go. The venue has actually been in use over the past two weeks, with community events planned as part of the Hockey City Classic.
Soldier Field has hosted a Blackhawks’ alumni event, an all-star game for Chicago’s outdoor hockey league, and a number of youth, high school, and adult games since Feb. 1. There have also been skates for companies, the public, and Bears and Blackhawks season ticket holders. The Chicago alumni chapters of the four schools get an opportunity to take the ice on Friday.
“You name it, we’ve had it,” Russell says. “I thought I understood what Soldier Field meant to the people of Chicago and the Midwest, but I had no idea how fond people are of that facility and that venue and the city of Chicago itself. As soon as we announced it, the buzz that was out there in terms of, `Hey, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity – this is something that’s never happened before.’ It’s something we didn’t really expect, and it’s just continued to steamroll.”
The opportunity is not lost on the Notre Dame team, which has seven Illinois natives on the roster. Several Irish players grew up attending Bears games at Soldier Field, never imagining they’d one day be playing hockey on that same field.
“For my senior year to be playing in Soldier Field, it’s going to be an unbelievable experience,” says Sam Calabrese, who hails from Park Ridge, Ill. “I have a lot of family there. I have cousins, aunts, and uncles all over Chicagoland, and they’re all going to be there.”
The event will be a special experience for the teams involved, but the games are also crucial for the conference standings. Miami is sitting at first place in the CCHA, with Notre Dame only a game behind. The two teams play once Friday in Oxford, Ohio, before traveling to Chicago.
“You usually want one of these games to be kind of a nonconference event, a special event that doesn’t count in the standings,” Nevala says.
Nevertheless, fans will get to see a battle between two of the CCHA’s top teams try to gather points while also dealing with the difficulties that the outdoors bring. Between the ice conditions, the cold, the wind, and the sun, there is a lot for teams to adjust to.
“The ice is going to be rough,” Irish goaltender Steven Summerhayssays. “It gets chipped up early in the period, and then in the second half of the period pucks will be bouncing. It depends, but playing at noon there could be a lot of sun glare. If it’s really cloudy, who knows, they might turn the lights on in the stadium.”
Having grown up in Alaska, Summerhays has some experience playing outdoors, but he might be in the minority. Besides playing outside as children, a lot of players have never played an actual game while dealing with the weather.
“Both teams have to play on it. That’s what it always comes down to. You can’t really prepare for it,” Calabrese says. “You have that practice Saturday, but I don’t think each team has a strategy for handling it. I think it’s just going to come down to making simple plays if the ice gets bad. I think that’s the biggest thing. It could be warm, the ice could be slushy, it could be windy. You just never know.”
Weather might be the primary concern for the players and coaches, and it’s certainly at the forefront of the organizers’ minds. There have been examples in the past that saw weather force an outdoor game to be pushed back. In 2011, rain and warm weather pushed back the Winter Classic, and last Saturday’s outdoor game between North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha was similarly rescheduled.
“Doing an event of this type, you’re always going to have concerns. I think our biggest concern is weather,” Russell said. “As we put the ice in, it was 60 degrees that day, and then in 36 hours, we were down below zero. So it’s the unpredictability of being off the lake here in Chicago.”
Unfortunately, Intersport has to prepare for the possibility that the games can’t be played indoors. Since these are league games near the end of the season, rescheduling isn’t a viable option.
“We’re going to do everything in our power to get it in the day of the game. So if that means we have to shift game time we’re prepared to do that,” Russell says. “Since these are conference games, they have to be played, and we do have a small indoor arena just to get the game played. And obviously we have some contingency plans with regards to tickets and sponsorships and things like that.”
However, the forecast is looking positive for the event, with temperatures near freezing and a low chance of precipitation. Just don’t tell Calabrese.
“I actually hope it’s snowing. That would be a cool atmosphere,” he says. “But I think the cold and the wind is going to be the biggest thing. You play on bad ice everywhere you go.
“When your momentum’s going, I don’t think anything is going to get between you and playing your game.”
With the first outdoor game for both Notre Dame and Soldier Field, there’s certainly a lot of hype surrounding the event. But ultimately it comes down to two of the country’s top teams playing in the hopes of winning the CCHA.
And more than 50,000 fans will be there to witness it.
“You just never know what you’re going to get out there, but it’s been a really great experience, and the feedback from everybody that’s been involved and been a part of it has been so positive,” Russell says. “We feel strongly that we are going to have a great success here.”