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.
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
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