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Inaugural Hockey City Classic a hit at Soldier Field

(MCT) — CHICAGO — Tailgating was all systems go under the sun and in the frigid air by the lake hours before the action began inside.

Which, technically, also was outside.

A thin layer of snow covered the grass and square gray slats set down on the Soldier Field surface Sunday, with the exception of the routes cleared to a rink dropped in the middle of a football field. For the first time since the building opened 89 years earlier, it hosted the sport of hockey, a landmark moment indeed.

“We have season tickets here as a family,” said Wisconsin left wing Michael Mersch, “but it was a surreal experience to share this with my teammates and get the win.”

Four college teams skated here — first Notre Dame and Miami (Ohio), then venerable rivals Wisconsin and Minnesota — in the inaugural Hockey City Classic witnessed by an announced 52,051. The Irish and Badgers emerged as winners, and while it took some getting used to, everyone figured they could get used to this.

“I don’t think we ever fully adjusted, to be honest with you,” said Notre Dame forward Jeff Costello, who had the game-winning tally in Game 1.

“The sun kept moving. It was tough. Especially when you’re skating fast, the wind gets in your eyes and your eyes start watering, it makes it even harder to see. But once you got going and got used to the shadows and sun beating down on your face, it was just like playing when you were growing up, and making simple plays to get the job done.”

At the time the puck dropped for the Irish-RedHawks opener at noon, the crowd on hand probably would have been standing-room only or overflow at the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend, Ind. In Soldier Field, it looked like the time-lapse photo of five minutes after someone issued a bubonic plague warning at a Bears game.

Wisconsin and Minnesota die-hards helped fill things in for the second game, the concourses teeming as the day wore on. Everyone seemed happy enough to be there, and teams engaged in some event-inspired wardrobe changes, most notably with Notre Dame debuting gold helmets that made them look like C-3P0s on skates. Eye-black, too, was as common for centers as it is for center fielders.

They hadn’t played seven minutes of Game 1 before the sport of hockey had its first sun field, with the announcement coming that the teams would alternate directions in the third period — 10 minutes going one way, 10 minutes going the other — due to the glare.

Notre Dame ultimately exercised its option to nix the end-switching plan — but then Wisconsin and Minnesota did their own third-period shuffle thanks to ice quality, a bit of improvisation in everything.

“The shadows were tough on the other end,” Irish goalie Steven Summerhays said. “It was more just keeping the flow of the game the same. We didn’t want to change anything.”

Ice crews were on early and often, apparently using something that shot fire into the ice in order to keep it from cracking, the most ironic repair method in history. Sun was a non-factor for Game 2, which started around 3:30 p.m., but ice conditions became the concern by twilight.

“When we first came out for the first period, the ice was pretty good,” Minnesota defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “It was quick, it was fast, our guys got into it right away. Obviously by the third period, when we split, it was getting choppy in one half.”

But if the NHL wants an administrative, bottom-line opinion on how Soldier Field held up as a possible future Winter Classic host, count Jack Swarbrick as a yea vote.

“I can’t imagine a better venue to put this in, because of the intimacy of the stadium,” the Notre Dame athletic director said. “When I walked in, that was the first thing that struck me — you don’t feel like you’re watching this game from the moon.”

As for the hockey, Mario Lucia and then Costello scored to provide a two-goal Notre Dame advantage. Miami’s Kevin Morris cut the deficit in half midway through the final frame, but the RedHawks couldn’t equalize with the goalie pulled in the final minute or so.

In the second game, Wisconsin broke the game open with three second-period goals in a span of three minutes and change, tallies by Kevin Schulze, John Ramage and Sean Little to take a commanding 3-0 lead. Minnesota answered with a Seth Ambroz goal early in the third period and a Zach Budish goal late, but couldn’t find the equalizer as time ran out.

Predictably, the results tended to color thoughts about the experience.

“It was an incredible experience, obviously,” said Miami’s Cody Murphy. “Losing took a lot away from it, but being from Chicago, being able to play in front of family, it’s something I’ll always remember.”

Said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves: “I was asked several times this week if we regret giving up a home game, and the answer is still no. The experience we had is a lifetime experience. That’s the tradeoff we get.”

Everyone got something from it. Swarbrick said he’d take hockey to Notre Dame Stadium sometime in the distant future. Minnesota coach Don Lucia gave “two thumbs up” to the Italian restaurant the team ate at Saturday.

And channeling the late Bob Johnson, Irish coach Jeff Jackson began his postgame remarks with a fitting final word on the matter.

“It was a great day for hockey,” he said.

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