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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Column: Outdoor hockey games have gone far enough

A little more than six years ago, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team transformed Lambeau Field into a hockey venue, skating to 4-2 win over Ohio State in an outdoor game no one who saw it will soon forget. Then, in 2010, the Badgers moved the Kohl Center’s atmosphere a few blocks up Dayton Street, topping Michigan in the Camp Randall Hockey Classic.

In nine months, the Badgers will head outdoors again to take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers, shirking any venues in Wisconsin or Minnesota for Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears.

If it hasn’t happened already, let’s count this as the moment when college hockey ran out of ideas for outdoor games, and just started throwing things at the wall. Because that game Feb. 17 (and we can revisit this column in nine months) is destined to fall flat, as the best rivalry in the college game plays out on bad ice in a half-empty stadium.

While the NHL consistently shines with its Winter Classic and Heritage Classic outdoor games, college hockey has had a less consistent run. Some have been unabashed successes, like when Michigan packed more than 100,000 people into the Big House for a game against Michigan State in 2010. Others were less successful – did you know the Wolverines played Ohio State at Progressive Field Jan. 1 of this year? Judging by the crowd, neither did most of Cleveland.

And it looks as if the Badgers’ game at Soldier Field is going to look more like the latter and less like the former. Because as college hockey piles outdoor game atop outdoor game year after year, it not only cheapens the experience of outdoor hockey, but also makes the events less exciting and less worthy of your money.

The game’s location is its biggest problem, of course. Chicago is a world-class city and a phenomenal sports town, nobody’s arguing that it isn’t, but it’s far from the appropriate setting for a game between Wisconsin and Minnesota. Getting to the game will be a three-hour drive for Wisconsin fans (or closer to five by bus, as any soul who has endured the Van Galder will tell you), and closer to eight hours for any Gophers making the trip.

When Badger football played Northern Illinois at Soldier Field last season, 41,068 fans showed up to to fill the 61,500-seat stadium. Now imagine the attendance numbers for a less-popular sport, and take away the one local tie to the stadium (Dekalb-based NIU).

Wisconsin’s game isn’t the only event at Soldier Field that day, with Miami (Ohio) and Notre Dame presumably acting as headliners to the Badgers’ opening act, but you can still imagine how empty that stadium will be when the Border Battle rivals take the ice.

The game’s next problem will be one typical of outdoor hockey. If you were here for the 2010 Camp Randall Hockey Classic, you’ll recall waiting around for ages between face-offs while ice crews tried to keep the playing surface passable.

Playing hockey outside is an absolute thrill, and like the marketing campaigns say it does harken back to the game’s humble beginnings. But high-level hockey wasn’t meant to be played outside, where conditions can make the ice disruptive at best and unusable at worst. Strip away the exciting build-up and novelty of playing outdoors and you’ll see that outdoor hockey games are rarely the sport at its best.

And the game, of course, has never been the point  —it’s all about the experience with outdoor hockey. That’s why college hockey needs to stop scheduling so many meaningless games that water down the experience and make them less special.

The Camp Randall Hockey Classic was special for the same reason that makes every outdoor game worth the slow pace and cold temperatures: We saw our stadium completely re-made, with a typically raucous Kohl Center crowd playing out its traditions on a grand scale. I’ll be graduating in a few weeks, and that experience (though not necessarily the game) will be one of my top sports memories at Wisconsin.

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February’s game at Soldier Field won’t have that same draw. Very few people on this campus have any connection to that stadium, and all they’ll be left with is a hockey game that won’t be worth the price of admission.

So cool it with all the outdoor games, college hockey. Keep the experience meaningful – because we know the game won’t be.

How can the Badgers bring magic back to outdoor hockey games? E-mail Nico at nicosavidge@gmail.com.

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