On Oct. 6, 2001, the Michigan State Spartans hosted the Michigan Wolverines in the Cold War outdoor hockey game at Spartan Stadium before 74,544 fans, the largest crowd to ever attend a hockey game. The matchup between the two storied rivals ended in a 3-3 tie, but for those who participated in the historic event, it was the thrill of a lifetime.
"Really amazing experience," said Buffalo Sabres goaltender and former Spartan Ryan Miller. "Our coaches, Dave McCollough and Ron Mason, got behind it, and when we found out we were going to have that game, there was just instant hype. I mean, Sports Illustrated and ESPN covered it, and for a college kid, even though we were a big program, to see all that media attention was a bit overwhelming. But it probably helped the majority of us who went on to play pro hockey — [it helped] settle nerves and stuff because there was so much hype and then the amount of people set a world record."
Current Canadiens and former Wolverines forward Mike Cammalleri faced Miller and the Spartans in that game, and for Cammalleri, it was a day he will never forget.
"It was really cool," Cammalleri told NESN.com. "Because the stadium is so much bigger than the actual hockey rink, when you were skating on the rink it really felt like a pond, like pond hockey. You would hear the skates on the ice so much clearer, the noises and voices were clearer because the fans were a bit farther away. It was unique that way.
"But then you look up, and you realize where you are. You see the almost 75,000 people, and that was really cool, too. The tailgates and parties were really cool as well because we don’t get that at a hockey game. So that was interesting."
Cammalleri also recalled the great playing conditions, despite the rain the night before the game.
"The ice was great — we had perfect weather, and it was just a great day," he said. "It was overcast, cold, but not too cold. It actually rained the night before, and when we practiced, the ice had holes in it, but they did a great job fixing it, and when we skated on it for the game, it was good."
Michigan and Michigan State recently agreed to play another outdoor game, this time at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich. This game will well exceed the attendance record set in East Lansing in the first Cold War game, as a crowd of 112,118 is expected to attend.
Unfortunately for Cammalleri, he hasn’t been able to play in another outdoor game that counts during his pro hockey career, but he’s hoping the Canadiens find a way to make it happen soon — maybe even with one of their fiercest rivals, the Bruins or Maple Leafs.
"I got a little jealous when the NHL started doing it, because I knew the way our game went and how positive it was, they would start doing it, but I thought it would be sooner," Cammalleri said. "I remember hearing rumors going into the game that financially the game cost Michigan State $30,000, but they made it back obviously with 75,000 fans, so yeah, I knew it could work. The big-party atmosphere — I had a feeling that they could replicate that in the NHL.”
As for a Bruins-Habs or Leafs-Habs tilt outdoors?
"Think you could sell tickets to one of those?" Cammalleri joked. "I don’t know where they could do it, maybe McGill Stadium? But that would be awesome, for sure."
Miller got to play in another outdoor game when he and the Sabres met the Penguins in Buffalo on Jan. 1, 2008, in the first Winter Classic game. Miller said that the Michigan-Michigan State game helped calm his nerves and allowed him to enjoy the NHL outdoor event a little more, despite his team losing 2-1 in a shootout.
"The first one was an amazing experience, and it set me up well for playing in the Winter Classic," he said. "I knew what kind of hype to expect, and I knew the conditions. I knew that visibility may be an issue. A 1-1 hockey game isn't so bad, but then you go to a shootout where anything can happen. I didn’t leave the building upset even though we lost. I just enjoyed the experience.
"The first one, I tried to enjoy the crowd as much as possible because I knew I’d be overwhelmed," Miller added. "The second time, I tried to enjoy it, but it was easier because it was a different outlook that time. I had done it once, and I didn’t want to miss out on such a great experience.”
Photo from Wikipedia.
NESN.com's James Murphy will be answering one Winter Classic question every day in December.
Friday, Dec. 11: What does it take to build a hockey rink at Fenway Park?
Sunday, Dec. 13: Who is Dan Craig, the NHL's Ice Man, and why does he love his job so much?