January 19, 2003
Postcard: Snow Big Deal

A little more than halfway into my drive to Big Rapids, Mich., from my house in beautiful Holt, Mich., this question popped into my head: what the hell am I doing?

The series finale between host Ferris State and Northern Michigan Saturday had some interesting storylines and I hadn't seen either team in person this season. But the weather wasn't cooperating. It was the coldest day of the winter. Thanks to a snow squall fresh off nearby Lake Michigan, traffic on the expressway connecting Grand Rapids and Big Rapids was moving about 30 miles an hour. As a native of northern Minnesota, I'm used to winter driving conditions and, while this snow wasn't severe enough to force members of a stranded Bolivian soccer team to consume each other, the roads were slick and visibility was iffy. The only motorists remotely attempting to approach the posted 70 mile per hour speed limit were those in Marge Simpson "Canyonero"-sized vehicles or towing trailers with snowmobiles.

I had a laundry list of non-meteorological reasons to turn around and head back to the Lansing area. I'd averaged roughly six hours of sleep each of the last three nights, which was purely my own fault, and my eyelids were so heavy it felt like they had been filled with sand. I was fueled by a combination of caffeine and the music of Jason Mraz (I'm no critic, but if you took DNA from John Mayer and combined it with DNA from G Love and Special Sauce, you'd have Jason Mraz). A restful evening in the comfort of the INCH nerve center wouldn't be bad. Besides, between DirecTV and local cable, there were more than a dozen NHL and college games to peruse.

Michigan State was entertaining Nebraska-Omaha, no more than 15 minutes from my doorstep. I could see a game in person – saunter into the Munn Ice Arena just prior to faceoff, dine on stale popcorn and Diet Coke, chat up friends and acquaintences from my days with the MSU program and be back in my heated Barcalounger in time to see the second half of the Hockey Night in Canada doubleheader. Ferris State was playing Michigan in Ann Arbor in two weeks and Northern Michigan would visit the Spartans in February, so I could catch up with both teams then.

But I pressed forward.

45 minutes later, I arrived in Big Rapids, a burg not unlike the one featured in the series "Northern Exposure", if that fictional Alaskan village had a Wal-Mart. A sign just inside city limits touts the Ferris State golf course and the university's golf management program, a career track that seems as out of place in this part of Michigan as a casino management major at BYU. Snaking through town, I passed the former site of Casey McNabb's, a popular post-game watering hole that now houses a combination Chinese restaurant and sports bar (yeah, I don't get it either), and finally arrived at Ewigleben Ice Arena.

Ewigleben Ice Arena

They don't make arenas like Ewigleben any more – imagine the Hickory Huskers' gym from "Hoosiers", only with a sheet of ice replacing the hardwood surface. You're right on top of the action in this cozy barn. The student section is vulgar, but not malicious. The Bulldog band is energetic and vastly underrated. Fans streaming into the arena prior to faceoff buzzed with anticipation of the home team avenging Friday's loss to the Wildcats and regaining sole possesion of first place in the CCHA standings. My energy level spiked, especially after leaving the concourse and feeling that slap of cold air on my face as I entered the arena.

Suddenly, I was excited.

And why not? It was a chance to see FSU's terrific forward, Chris Kunitz, up close. I could keep an eye on the Milam brothers, the Bulldogs' Troy and the Wildcats' Jamie, watch their interactions on the ice and maybe even be privy to some Milam-on-Milam violence. I could try to predict which version of maddingly inconsistent NMU goaltender Craig Kowalski would show up – the standout that can't lose to Michigan or the one that plays like someone filled his mask with fire ants. I'd get the opportunity to see Northern's stable of promising rookie defensemen as well as Jordan Bianchin, who was a freshman at Denver when I was working with the Pioneers. And Wildcat coach Walt Kyle singlehandedly tried to update the Barry Melrose look wearing a long, black overcoat on the team bench, which was worth the drive in and of itself.

As the game unfolded, I was drawn in. Both teams seemed to place a priority on skating hard and hitting even harder. It was a rugged, fast-paced affair – the game ended two hours after opening faceoff. Both Kowalski and FSU netminder Mike Brown made highlight reel saves. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 2-0 edge on effort goals by Derrick McIver and Kunitz. The crowd was energized, but the Wildcats short-circuited that enthusiasm with a power-play marker late in the first period to cut the lead in half after 20 minutes of play.

While the NMU score temporarily dampened the enthusiasm of the fans, it did nothing to the temper the resolve of coach Bob Daniels' charges. Ferris outshot its opponent by a 15-3 margin in the second period, keeping the 'Cats on their collective heels the entire period. The hosts regained their two-goal edge midway through the frame when Greg Rallo tipped a Troy Milam blast from the far point past Kowalski. Six minutes later, Brett Smith converted with the extra man to give the Bulldogs a 4-1 lead. The surprise team in the CCHA looked as if it would maintain a slim lead over Ohio State in the league standings.

Meanwhile, I received a score update from a friend at Munn. Midway through the second period, it was 5-0 Michigan State. Blecch.

The final period was a tad ragged, but spirited nonetheless. Rallo added Ferris' fifth goal, a shorthanded effort, five minutes into the third on a nifty play, walking around a Northern rearguard and sliding a backhand attempt past Kowalski. The Wildcat goalie was yanked by Kyle in favor of backup Tuomas Tarkki.

I was having a great time. Maybe it was because these were two pretty good teams playing a game of relative importance. Maybe it was because I hadn't seen either team in person and was busy decipering the strengths and weaknesses of both clubs. Maybe it was because the 2,160 fans in attendance, unlike those at the Munn-soleum in East Lansing, were enjoying themselves and letting everyone know it.

Or maybe the combination of the small town, intimate rink, energetic crowd and winter weather reminded me of my schoolboy days in Grand Rapids, Minn., when I'd head to the IRA Civic Center (a facility roughly double the size of Ewigleben) on a sub-zero winter night to meet my buddies and watch the Indians' varsity hockey team play International Falls or Hibbing. I felt like I was getting a second chance to experience something that I never truly savored the first time around.

Outside the arena after the game, the snow fluttered gently from the sky and the air was brisk and refreshing. For some reason, the trip home didn't seem that bad.

– Mike Eidelbes

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