Ohio State head coach Mark Osiecki knows how addicting outdoor hockey is to college players.
That’s because he lived it six years ago while serving as an assistant coach at Wisconsin.
The Badgers faced Ohio State in one of the first big outdoor games to take place, the Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic in Green Bay’s Lambeau Field in February 2006, and the night before the game, Osiecki and the Badgers coaches couldn’t bring themselves to leave the ice.
“Some of us stayed on the ice until midnight the night before,” he said. “We just didn't want to leave. It was beautiful. The temperature was outstanding. We were out there, we had a couple of Packer people come out and we didn't leave the ice until around midnight.”
Over the years, Osiecki has experienced the same phenomenon with the two Badgers teams he’s coached – that 2006 squad, which went on the win the national title, and the one that faced Michigan in Camp Randall Stadium in February 2010 – and it should be the same this weekend as No. 2 Ohio State takes on 15th-ranked Michigan on Sunday in Cleveland’s Progressive Field in the Frozen Diamond Faceoff.
Outdoor hockey holds a special place in the game – look no further than the success of the NHL Winter Classic – and those who get to take part, whether they be in the stands or on the ice, seem to get goosebumps just thinking about it.
“It’s pretty special,” OSU sophomore Travis Statchuk said, who grew up playing outside in his native Saskatchewan. “I think a lot of guys have some background. A lot of guys learning how to skate when they’re younger, they do it in an outdoor rink. For guys like me, growing up in a small town, it’s always there. It’s the memory of being a kid. It’s really special.”
It’s a mixed bag when it comes to the Ohio State players and their former experiences with outdoor hockey. Some, like goaltender Cal Heeter, said they’ve never had the chance to play outside, while those who grew up in more northern climates – like Statchuk, upstate New York native Cory Schneider and fellow co-captain Sean Duddy, who is from Ann Arbor – used to skate at either public rinks or in backyards growing up.
“(It brings back memories of) playing pond hockey when I was younger,” Duddy said. “This winter, the ponds haven’t been freezing anywhere I don’t think, but when you were younger all throughout Christmas, throughout the winter months, that’s all we would do is play pond hockey. It brings back great memories of that.”
Osiecki grew up in Burnsville, Minn., and spent a fair share of time playing outside. He didn’t have much choice, as his father, Tom, coached the Burnsville High squad and staged weekly practices in the elements.
“We grew up playing outside,” he said, “standing in the snow banks and jumping in the car after the game or in between shifts or rotating in between the warming house between shifts.”
The Buckeyes as a team got their first taste of the entirety of the experience Jan. 2 when they bussed up Interstate 71 for a practice session on Progressive Field’s rink. Before they could take the ice, which runs down the first-base line at the home of the Cleveland Indians, the players and coaches grabbed shovels while the Indians staff pulled out snow blowers to clear the ice surface as a snowfall left drifts of more than a foot.
Once the practice did start, snow flurries started to fall, creating a picturesque scene.
“It was a lot of fun,” Schneider said. “I think everybody had a good time out there. Especially when it started snowing, it just brought back a lot of memories for the guys and made it even more fun.”
Added Duddy, “It was a fantastic experience. It’s really cool to look up and not see a roof above you. It was a really fun experience and I think it’ll be 10 times that with the crowd there in an actual game.”
The Buckeyes also got to spent time in the Indians dugout and dressed in the team’s clubhouse, another experience team members seemed to enjoy.
“It was pretty interesting,” Osiecki said. “It was a good experience for our guys. They didn’t want to leave the locker room. They were in the Indians clubhouse. It was funny, we went in there afterward and we were trying to get out and on the road, and all the guys were sitting there in their comfortable chairs relaxing, hanging out like you would in a clubhouse like that. Our guys really enjoyed the experience.”
The outdoor game is part of a trend that has advanced in hockey over the past couple of seasons. Michigan and Michigan State started the run in 2001 when Spartan Stadium hosted the so-called “Cold War” between the teams, an event Duddy was able to attend as a youngster growing up.
"It was an unbelievable experience then," he said. "I'm hoping our fans this time around, people who haven't had a chance to see an outdoor game like that will have the same type of experience."
Outdoor games have grown in popularity since the NHL got on board with its creation of the Winter Classic, which began on New Year’s Day 2008 when Pittsburgh faced Buffalo in the snow.
Since then, the NHL has staged at least one outdoor game each year, with the Winter Classic making headlines each campaign, while college games have become more and more prevalent. This year, Fenway Park in Boston is hosting college games over two weekends starting last Saturday.
“It’s the roots of the game,” Osiecki said. “I think that’s what makes hockey players who they are.”
Some tickets remain available for the Frozen Diamond Faceoff, with seats in the Ohio State section at Indians.com/Buckeyes. For those who can’t make it, the game – which faces off at 5 p.m. – will be shown on Fox Sports Ohio throughout the Buckeye State and Fox Sports Plus in Michigan. A rerun will be shown nationwide at 9 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.
In addition, the teams will play Friday night in Value City Arena at 7:30 p.m. in a game that will be shown live on BTN with a season-high crowd expected to be in attendance.