Six layers. That's how bundled up I was as I made the walk to Cleveland's Progressive Field on a sunny, but blustery day. On a television in the concourse, as the NFL playoff game in Green Bay was getting started, I noticed it was actually warmer at the Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field. Lucky me. At least the ice stayed cold.
As a hockey fan from Ohio, I was looking forward to the first outdoor game in my home state. Unfortunately, the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets are many winning seasons from ever being considered for a Winter Classic (2017, Ohio Stadium. Book it now.), so the honor fell to, ahem, the Ohio State University to christen the state's first outdoor hockey game. What better team for them to faceoff against then that school up north, Michigan?
To this point, the rivalry between these two teams is more general and about the universities rather than the hockey teams. Ohio State's hockey program has long lagged behind Michigan as far as on-ice success goes what with the Wolverines 24 Frozen Four appearances and 9 NCAA Championships. The Frozen Diamond Faceoff could be looked at, not just as a kickstart to the on-ice rivalry, but also as a precursor to Big Ten Hockey. This event is ringing the bell and setting the tone for the new college hockey conference that will come online for the 2013-14 season.
Before the game, the schools' respective bands performed on opposite sides of the stadium, then marched into the stadium to their sections, as they would for the traditional football game. The infield at Progressive Field looked amazing blanketed with snow, with the rink situated along the first base line and the outfield space filled with slides and an ice skating trail from the Indians' Snow Days Carnival, a successful event for the Indians, now in its second year. It was a great sight to look at the sections of the stadium and see definite divisions of maize and blue versus scarlet and gray, with a few friendly snowball fights breaking out as faceoff approached and generally positive feelings and few beers were shared amongst the fanbases.
It has always puzzled me as a hockey fan growing up in Ohio that Cleveland has never really been a "hockey market". While there has been a strong base at the youth and high school levels for some time, anything at a level higher than that has struggled to hold the Cleveland sports fans attention for more than a few seasons. Only recently has the current minor league team, the Lake Erie Monsters, backed by Cavaliers' owner Dan Gilbert, drummed up solid crowds. They currently sit at 4th in attendance in the American Hockey League. Both schools did their part and packed buses with students and mobilized strong groups of alumni to take part. I had hopes that casual fans would turn out for this and I have to admit I was a little disappointed with the announced attendance being only 25,864 (apparently the game was still profitable). I would have hoped the schools were enough of a draw to fill out the seats, but alas, there were enough fans to create a nice level of noise and unmentionable chants and phrases aimed at the opposing side. Perhaps more people would have been more engaged if the local Monsters team had been involved in some way, another game the previous day or earlier that afternoon, though that could have put a lot more stress on the temporary ice surface. As it was, the ice held up well with only two stoppages to fix imperfections.
As for the game itself, the young Buckeyes (12 freshmen on the squad) were overpowered most of the game. Michigan dominated puck possession early and the Michigan defense disrupted Ohio State's forechecking attempts with aplomb, keeping Wolverine goalkeeper Shawn Hunwick from having to make too many difficult saves.
The final was 4-1 Michigan, but regardless, the event felt like a success. Sure it wasn't of as grand a scale, or as high profile like the outdoor games at The Big House or Fenway Park, but it will hopefully stand as another positive moment for college hockey and specifically, hockey in Ohio.
As far as the trend of outdoor games, it's certainly not going away with games rumored next year in Omaha, and a doubleheader at Chicago's Soldier Field. That game will supposedly feature Miami of Ohio facing Notre Dame early, then Minnesota versus Wisconsin. The Frozen Diamond Faceoff was a great event to be a part of, and hopefully we'll see another one in this area in a couple of seasons. Hopefully by then, increased awareness of the sport at this level will drive more casual hockey fans to share in the festivities and tradition of college hockey.