Neither sunny skies nor unseasonable temperatures will stay the hockey players of Notre Dame and Michigan from their appointed round this afternoon when they take their long-time rivalry outside at Notre Dame Stadium.
A crowd of more than 22,000 is expected in The House That Rockne Built to watch the sixth-ranked Fighting Irish and Wolverines play for the 143rd time on the rink the NHL Constructed for last Tuesday’s Winter Classic game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins.
However, Mother Nature has thrown a wrench into one of the Zambonis. Because of expected sunny skies and temperatures in the mid 40s, the faceoff for the Big Ten Conference game has been moved back an hour to 4:30 p.m. (as have the gates opening for premium and general admission to 2:30 and 3:30, respectively).
The NBC Sports Network will televise the game live for those unable to locate their sunblock.
Both teams skated on the ice Friday — Notre Dame in the morning with the glare of the sun coming over the southeast portion of the stadium; Michigan in the late afternoon when the sun was shining out of the southwest — and many of the Irish players sported eye black as baseball and football players often do for games played during the day outdoors.
Junior defenseman and captain Andrew Peeke, whose hometown of Parkland, Fla., is not far from Miami, wore eye black for Team USA in last year’s World Juniors Championships in Buffalo during a preliminary game against Canada at New Era Field, home of the NFL Buffalo Bills. “And I wore it (eye black) playing baseball and all that,” Peeke said. “This is special, even coming out here to practice.”
All-America goaltender Cale Morris wore eye black for the first time since his youth football days. Morris, who blanked Boston College 4-0 Monday night for the 12-5-1 Irish, also added one more piece of wardrobe on top of his golden goal mask — a Notre Dame-logoed ski cap.
“The glare is something we can’t control,” Morris said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all of us.”
Following the one-hour practice witnessed by hockey alumni, family and friends of the program, Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson reminded his team that it would be back to business Saturday against the 6-7-6 Wolverines.
“I wanted them to enjoy the day — let them skate, play the game like we used to when we were kids, have fun with their families out there,” said the 63-year-old Jackson, who passed the late Lefty Smith with his 308th victory at Notre Dame Monday. “Tomorrow we have to take it seriously. It’s a big game.”
The Irish, who last season swept the regular-season and tournament titles in their first Big Ten campaign on way to their second straight Frozen Four appearance, are 5-3-0-0 for 15 points in the league standings, one point behind co-leaders Ohio State and Wisconsin. Notre Dame, playing as many as eight freshmen, has won nine of its last 11.
Mel Pearson’s Wolverines are 2-4-4-2 for 12 points, tied for fourth with Minnesota. They will be without their top two scorers in All-America defenseman Quinn Hughes and forward Josh Norris, who are playing for the United States in the World Juniors Championship in Toronto.
But Michigan still has plenty of firepower in junior forwards Will Lockwood (5 goals, 10 assists, 15 points) and Nick Pastujov (10-4-14) and senior defenseman Joseph Cecconi (1-13-14). Freshman Strauss Mann and junior Hayden Lavigne have split the goaltending duties.
Michigan, coming off a pair of 2-2 ties against Michigan Tech and Michigan State in the Great Lakes Invitational tournament in Detroit last Sunday and Monday, is 1-3-6 since splitting an early November series in Ann Arbor with Notre Dame — a 2-1 victory followed by a 6-2 Irish triumph. The teams have a Tuesday, Feb. 12 meeting at the Lefty Smith Rink in the Compton Family Ice Arena.
“There’s going to be a lot of hype around the game, a lot of distractions,” Peeke said. “For us it’s about focusing on those three points. If we want to accomplish our goals, we need those three points.”
Pat Novitzki, a local banker who killed penalties for Notre Dame from 1972-76, was among the alumni taking to the ice.
“It’s pretty unique — I never thought I’d see a hockey game in the stadium, particularly after the Compton was built,” Novitzki said.
Another alumnus regaining his skating legs was Tom Smith, who is in development at his alma mater Culver Academy. He played left wing for his father, the late Lefty Smith, in 1988-89.
“I would think Dad would think it’s not much different than Howard Park,” joked the younger Smith of the outdoors rink downtown that was Notre Dame’s home for a time. “It’s a beautiful facility. I think the NHL has done a wonderful job. I think Notre Dame allowing families and alumni to come out and skate is absolutely a wonderful idea.”
Thos families and alumni in town, of course, will see their mindsets changed today against Michigan.
“For sure it’s going to be an experience of a lifetime,” senior defenseman Bobby Nardella said. “The history in this stadium, the Winter Classic being here, it’s going to be really special dressing in the locker room. It’s going to be fun. Coach told us to have fun.
“But come tomorrow, we have to be dialed in,” Nardella said.
No matter what Mother Nature dials up for weather.
Three points in the standings is three points in the standings, no matter where they are earned, indoors or out.