Opinion: On a perfect night, everything went right for Michigan's Big Chill at the Big House
Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com
The stealth bomber departed Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Mont., sometime in the early afternoon, cruised past the snow-covered Midwest and screamed over the Michigan Stadium crowd precisely at the end of the "Star-Spangled Banner."
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
Everything worked that way Saturday. The fly-over, the ice condition, the fireworks - all the details fell in Michigan’s favor during the elaborate and wildly successful Big Chill at the Big House.
Months of planning and weeks of sleepless nights for the athletic department’s operations staff produced something beyond the outdoor hockey game university officials had dreamed up.
“This,” hockey coach Red Berenson said, “was magic.”
The fact the Michigan hockey team shellacked Michigan State, 5-0, was almost irrelevant. This wasn’t about hockey.
Michigan packed 113,411 fans into the Big House and set a record for the best-attended college sports event in U.S. history. They had come not only to witness something special Saturday, but to participate as well. Michigan delivered.
Brand-new lights atop the stadium highlighted the action. Fireworks lit up the sky following the game. Almost everyone stuck around to see the display.
So many helicopters hovered over the stadium you would have thought they were filming the remake of "Blue Thunder."
It all seemed so perfect Saturday that it seemed hard to imagine that Michigan officials didn’t quite know what to make of everything when they set out on the adventure of hosting the game.
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon recalled the morning in March when tickets went on sale. Michigan officials held their breath at the possibility the event would flop.
Fans bought dozens at a time. Brandon saw orders for 40 tickets, 50 tickets, even 100 at a time. Those memories didn’t ease his worry when he looked at an empty stadium 45 minutes before face-off.
“I walked in and, frankly,” he said, “I was like, ‘Where is everybody?’” But by the time the stealth bomber kicked off the event, the late-arriving crowd had filled the entire stadium, with the exception of a small sliver of bleachers in the student section, and everything went like clockwork. This wasn’t just about a hockey game.
This was a fitting tribute to the 27-year coaching tenure of Berenson and a testament to the marketing savvy of Michigan’s new athletic director.
It was a preview of coming attractions, a test run for next year’s night game between the Michigan and Notre Dame football teams, an event that could break the attendance record set Saturday.
It was a boost for the local economy, which benefited to the tune of an estimated $14 million.
This was a heck of a party.
Both teams appreciated not only the significance of the spectacle, but the history of the venue. Bo met Woody on this field. President Obama addressed graduates from it in May.
Now, a hockey game holds a place in its distinguished 83-year history. “I grew up as a Michigan fan watching guys like Tim Biakabatuka,” said Wolverines goalie Shawn Hunwick, who grew up in nearby Sterling Heights. “Charles Woodson going down the sidelines in ’97 was one of the highlights of my young life.”
He added another highlight Saturday.
Hunwick delivered a shutout on a moment’s notice - he joined the starting lineup at the last minute when a teammate got hurt in warm-ups - on a night the Wolverines couldn’t disappoint the home crowd.
This wasn’t just about a hockey game, though.
And as perfect as the moment was when night descended on the Big House and the newly installed lights captured the oddity of a hockey team celebrating in the middle of a football field, it was topped.
Hours later, a few young children lingered on the ice, laughing as they made snow angels in the slush long after the game had ended, long after the last fans had gone home.
It was a beautiful moment.
It was, as Berenson might have said, “magic.”