Seven years ago, 40,890 fans filled Lambeau Field to watch the Wisconsin men’s hockey team down Ohio State 4-2 in the Frozen Tundra Classic during the second-ever collegiate outdoor hockey game.
Three years ago on Feb. 6, 2010, the Badgers used two third-period power play goals from Brendan Smith to beat Michigan 3-2 in the Camp Randall Classic in front of 55,031 fans.
In just a few days, Feb. 17, 2013 to be exact, Wisconsin will face-off with arch-rival Minnesota at Soldier Field in the long-awaited Hockey City Classic. In a span of seven years, the Badgers will play their third outdoor game — but for the first time, they’ll play a WCHA opponent.
And what better opponent to play than the rival Gophers?
“This is a lifetime experience,” head coach Mike Eaves said during his Monday press conference. “Going to the place where the Olympics are held and where it sits in the city itself, it’s a life experience. It’s something that — and once again, the kids on our team now that haven’t played outside, they get to talk about this to their kids and grandkids. Being a life experience makes it all worth it.”
For most of the skaters, it’s their first outdoor game in years — or ever. For the small handful of seniors on the team, or fifth-year skaters, only defenseman John Ramage saw time on the ice in the 2010 game.
With the chance to play outside one more time, Ramage is fully embracing the unique opportunity.
“It’s incredible,” Ramage said. “Usually playing outdoors is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I get to do it twice. I’m very lucky and I’m really looking forward to it.”
With weather a factor when playing outside, Ramage admitted he hasn’t given his teammates any advice yet, but come Saturday, he’ll be ready with pointers.
Fellow senior, forward Derek Lee, had the opportunity to practice at the Camp Randall outdoor rink in 2010. He didn’t get the chance to play in the game — he was only a freshman at the time — but Lee was still wrapped up in the experience.
With the 2010 game on campus, it had that extra special feel to it, according to Lee.
“It was something cool and I’m sure this weekend will be something similar,” Lee said.
But as one of the senior leaders this season — and second on the team in points, with 20 — Lee will certainly get plenty of ice time come Sunday.
“I’m glad we’ve got two outdoor games during my four years of being here,” Lee said. “I missed out on the first one a little bit. Now I get to finally do it. I’ve never done something like this so it’ll be exciting and it’s kind of cool that we’re going to a neutral location in Chicago — a place that everyone can familiarize themselves with in Soldier Field.”
While Lee relishes his second opportunity to play outdoors, junior defenseman Frankie Simonelli was anticipating the eventual occasion ever since his recruiting visits.
“When I came here on my visit — that was a long time ago — they had mentioned they were going to have the one in 2010 and then they said they had also imagined that in the time I was here, there would also be a game,” Simonelli said.
“When I came on my visit and saw all the pictures of the previous game in ’06 at Lambeau, I just thought of how exciting that was for those guys. Coming to a big school like this, I knew I would have an opportunity like that.”
While he only had to wait about two and a half years, the game is also being played right in his backyard — just 35 minutes up Interstate 290 from his hometown of Bensenville, Ill.
“I know a lot of family and friends back home are all excited,” Simonelli said. “Everyone’s asking me a million different questions (about the game). I just tell them ‘I don’t have the answers right now.’ It’s definitely going to be an exciting event for me, my teammates and all the people back home.”
While friends, family and fans have been waiting for this weekend, the players themselves are just ready to have some fun in a unique setting against one of their most hated opponents.
Regardless of the hype around the event or whether it is someone’s first outdoor game on such a scale, one thing is certain: It’s the way hockey was meant to be played.
“It adds that kind of mystique to it,” Lee said. “You’re playing outside where the game originated and people were just doing it for fun. We’re going to do the same thing. We’re going to have some fun out there.”