Myers: Soldier Field awaits, but Gophers must put all focus on winning
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MINNEAPOLIS - Like many of his players, Don Lucia grew up practicing and playing hockey without a roof over his head. On Wednesday, contemplating his Gophers program's first outdoor game, coming up Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago, Lucia recalled his youth hockey days in northern Minnesota, where they would practice outside all week, then on Sunday get the rare treat of playing with a roof over their heads.
That's the conventional way they will play Friday night in Madison, as the Gophers - no longer ranked number one in the nation, and now needing some help in their quest to repeat as WCHA regular season champs - take on Wisconsin at the Kohl Center. Sunday's rematch with the Badgers will be different in nearly every respect. They'll wear new sweaters, play in a different state, play on a temporary rink with 60,000 seats around it, and play at the mercy of Chicago's notoriously harsh winter weather, including those renowned winds that can howl in off Lake Michigan.
For the Badgers, and all of the other future Big Ten teams, minus the Gophers, outdoor games at big stadiums are nothing new. Wisconsin has played home games at both Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, and Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Michigan and Michigan State have faced off head-to-head in each other's football stadiums, with more than 100,000 packing the Big House for a Wolverines win in 2010. And last season Michigan traveled to Cleveland and beat Ohio State on a rink set up at the home of baseball's Indians.
For the Gophers, it's a whole new world they haven't experienced since Mites, in most cases. The Badgers coach acknowledged as much this week, noting that if there's any advantage to be gained from experience, his team has it.
"It's definitely a new chapter for them, and another chapter for us," Mike Eaves said, adding that his team will have more of a handle on what kind of undergarments and hats work best when playing hockey exposed to the elements. "There are a lot of dynamics that are wrapped up into this weekend. The exciting part is this weekend will serve to be a real emotional boost...Playing in front of 50,000 people will be a really good thing."
Always one to focus on the immediate task at hand, Lucia has worked to maintain his team's attention and attitude about treating this, at least initially, as a regular weekend road trip, and zero in on the two critical WCHA standings points available in Madison on Friday. After last weekend's split with St. Cloud State, the Gophers trail the idle Huskies by five points, meaning even with a sweep this weekend, they'll still need help to overtake their closest in-state rivals. In other words, looking ahead to the circus in Cook County and forgetting about the weekend's indoor game could be costly.
"When we started the year, we knew we were going to have the outdoor game, and we kind of had that circled on our calendars to look forward to," said Erik Haula, the team's leading scorer, who played plenty of outdoor hockey as a youth in Finland. "But now that the standings are so close and the weekend is as important as it is with the two games we've got in hand and the points we've got to catch up, we've got to be able to put all our focus on Friday."
In November, when the Badgers came to Minneapolis, they were a mess. They won just one of their first 11 games, before flipping a switch on about Dec. 1. Wisconsin is on an 11-2-4 run since then, and has worked its way solidly back into the NCAA playoff picture. Since both weekend games count in the standings, neither is more important than the other, despite an extra 40,000 fans or so that will be watching on Sunday.
"We're going to worry about the Chicago game on Saturday," Lucia said, noting that the Gophers will bus to Madison on Thursday, head to Chicago by bus immediately after the Friday game, and fly home late Sunday after the outdoor game. "Our focus has been on preparing just like any other week and I think the excitement will be there on Saturday when we get the opportunity to skate outside."
Lucia sought the advice of Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson a few weeks ago. Pearson, who was an assistant at Michigan for the Wolverines' four outdoor games, said the hour of outdoor ice that the Gophers get for practice on Saturday should be enough to acclimate them to the ice conditions and surroundings.
"The reality is as long as you can skate the day before, it gets you used to the atmosphere," Lucia said. "The ice should be pretty good and with the rink setup it's not like playing with wooden boards and chicken wire like when I grew up."
But Pearson advised that it's not only a business trip, and that Lucia should make sure the players enjoy the spectacle, at least on Saturday.
"They can shoot a few pucks through the uprights and get that over with, then be ready to play the game," Lucia said.
On another Sunday afternoon in Chicago, many years ago - Oct. 14, 2007, to be exact - a rookie named Adrian Peterson ran for 224 yards (then a career best) in a 34-31 Vikings victory at Soldier Field. That was the last time a Minnesota team has won a game in the Bears' home stadium.
With Wisconsin red-hot and WCHA points at a premium, it will take more than a few pucks shot through the uprights for the Gophers to break their home state's Windy City losing streak.