Jan. 21, 2014
By Chad Shepard, MGoBlue.com
After playing just four games in the last six weeks, the University of Michigan hockey team will start the second half of the season by heading to downtown Detroit at Joe Louis Arena to play Michigan State this Thursday (Jan. 23) at 7 p.m.
The game will mark the second of five scheduled meetings between the two schools this season. U-M leads the all-time series against the Spartans, 145-126-19, and has won nine of its last 10 games against Michigan State at the Joe, including four consecutive victories dating back to the 2010-11 season.
With six of U-M's 10 freshmen hailing from Michigan, the chance to take the ice at Joe Louis Arena in a Wolverine jersey will come Thursday (Jan. 23), but for a few, playing at the Joe is nothing new. Several members of Michigan's freshman class skated on the JLA ice when they were younger, most of them with Michigan-based travel programs like Little Caesars, Honeybaked and Compuware which play tournaments on the Red Wings' home ice.
Still, the excitement is there for "College Hockey in the D" on Thursday night, as the young Wolverines return to Joe Louis Arena.
"It only happens once or twice a year that we get to play here and it's a lot of exposure," said freshman forward Alex Kile. "It's on TV, it's Michigan-Michigan State and it's a big rivalry so we're excited." Kile, a native of Troy, Mich, played for Honeybaked and took the ice at Joe Louis Arena as recently as 2011.
Freshman forward Tyler Motte, a native of St. Clair, Mich., remembered skating at Joe Louis Arena as a 14 year old, and said he is familiar with the rink and some of its particulars.
"It was a pretty fast surface," Motte said. "The ice can get a little choppy late in the game but it seems to start off pretty fast in the beginning, so hopefully we can get that working in our advantage."
Fast ice will benefit Michigan's speedy forwards, but there are other oddities about playing in a pro rink that could play a factor on Thursday, namely the boards and the crowd.
"The live boards definitely play a factor," Kile said. "It's known throughout the country (for that),"
Freshman defenseman Michael Downing, a native of Canton, Mich., agrees about the rink's lively boards, and says it's something he is comfortable with adjusting to as a defenseman. Downing also played for Honeybaked, among other local youth travel programs.
"During warm-ups at every away rink I throw the puck off the boards a couple of times, just to see how the puck bounces," Downing said, "I'll shoot it in different spots. You never know, any bounce is possible."
Joe Louis Arena has a seating capacity of 20,000-plus, more than the combined capacity of U-M's Yost Ice Arena and Michigan State's Munn Ice Arena. The young Wolverines are excited about what the crowd will bring to the game given the intense rivalry and proximity between the two schools. Detroit is also just under an hour's drive from Ann Arbor, so while Michigan will treat the game as if it was a road matchup, it won't feel like one.
"Our routine is going to be the same as if the game was at Yost so it's going to be a normal game for us," Kile said. "Big crowds are a factor. They can help you get momentum. After a big hit or a big goal the crowd is always going so they can help us in this game and we'd like to see a good crowd there."
While Kile anticipates a fair showing from Michigan State fans on Thursday, he expects a strong turnout in support of U-M.
"There are Michigan fans all over the place," said Kile with a smile.
Even though many come to Michigan having the experience of playing at Joe Louis Arena, the Michigan freshmen know how unique an opportunity it is to share a locker room and bench with players they grew up watching on television.
"It's just a special, special feeling when you're playing in an NHL rink," said Downing.
With Big Ten play underway since December and this contest marking the first matchup between U-M and MSU in the new conference, this game also marks history. The two teams have played against one another in five different conferences since 1951-52, the Midwest Collegiate Hockey League (1951-53), the Western Intercollegiate Hockey League (1953-58), the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (1959-1981), the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (1982-2013), and now the Big Ten.
After playing MSU downtown on Thursday, U-M travels to East Lansing to play the Spartans at their home rink on Friday, Jan. 24, at 6:30 p.m. on the Big Ten Network. The following weekend, Michigan welcomes Wisconsin to Ann Arbor for the Maize and Blue's first home-ice action since mid-December and its first two-game series at home since the first weekend in November.