Irish senior Sam Calabrese remembers sitting in the stands of Soldier Field 11 years ago watching Mike Brown return an interception for a touchdown in overtime. He knows how loud it can get. He remembers watching his hometown Chicago Bears beat Seattle in the NFC playoffs two winters ago in late January. He knows how cold it can get.
Captain Anders Lee, left, and Sam Calabrese model the throwback jerseys Notre Dame will wear Sunday at Soldier Field.
Other than that, Calabrese has no idea what to expect when he visits the colonnade by Lake Michigan again this weekend.
Calabrese is one of the seven Chicagoland natives on Notre Dame’s roster who will be skating into territory that is both familiar and very foreign Sunday afternoon. The Irish are scheduled to face No. 3 Miami at noon in the first outdoor game in program history and Soldier Field history.
“Ive been to a lot of games as a football fan but never imagined playing hockey out there,” Calabrese said. “Doing it for my senior year, to play at Soldier Field, is going to be an unbelievable experience.”
The outdoor game is a once-in-a-career opportunity for most of these players and a rare treat for an Irish team that gathers a sizable chunk of its roster from the Windy City. It also presents a playing surface loaded with more dangerous question marks than a Mario Kart track for a game that could potentially dictate the postseason fate of either club.
Even veteran coach Jeff Jackson, in his 13th season behind a college bench, hasn’t been part of an outdoor game since his days of playing shinny on Michigan’s frozen ponds. After talking to other college coaches who have been through the experience, Jackson said his biggest concern remains the weather.
“Whether it’s a little too warm or rainy or snowin' or blowin', there’s all kinds of different factors that could come into play,” he said. “We have to be prepared for those. You may have delays in the game.”
The current weather report calls for a high of 32 degrees and sunshine at the time of the opening faceoff — a few more clouds and conditions would be ideal. Sun can wreak havoc on ice, as Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota found out a week ago. Their outdoor game was pushed back nearly three hours as technicians scrambled to patch large holes in the temporary surface. Both coaches said the ice played a factor in what ended up as a 5-2 win for North Dakota.
A bright sun shining on white ice and snow will make it harder to see the puck as well. Irish goalie Steven Summerhays grew up playing outdoors frequently in Alaska. He said Saturday’s practice on the outdoor surface will be important for figuring out sight lines and making adjustments.
“We have that practice on Saturday where we can mess around with some of the eye stuff and see what kind of glare there is going to be on the ice,” he said. “The ice is going to be rough. It gets chipped up really early in the period and then in the second half of the period pucks will be bouncing.”
The wind from Lake Michigan is another potential problem. Last week 30 mile-per-hour gusts forced the ice crew at Soldier Field to remove half of the glass panels around the rink to keep them from blowing over. The wind makes it colder, too. Players from Michigan and Michigan State who have been through this before warned the Irish to expect to warm up a little slower after a long, cold walk to the locker room between periods.
Calabrese is hoping for snow nonetheless. He isn’t as concerned with the weather or the hordes of family coming to see him as the atmosphere itself being a distraction. Previous trips to the Frozen Four and NHL arenas have taught the veteran defenseman that the size of the stage is often the biggest obstacle for a college team to overcome.
More than 40,000 tickets have been sold for the 61,000-seat stadium that will host the Notre Dame-Miami game and a Minnesota-Wisconsin showdown in doubleheader action. All four teams will practice on the ice Saturday afternoon to try to get a feel for the conditions and rid themselves of the jitters that go with playing in such a unique venue.
“I think we’ll be used to it,” said junior T.J. Tynan, another product of the Chicago suburbs. “We’ve played in some pretty tough environments. I think at this age and level all the guys are going to be used to the crowd.”
All this comes at a make-or-break juncture for both teams in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association standings. Miami increased its first place lead to a two-game gap by beating the Irish 3-1 Friday night in Oxford, Ohio. Third-place Notre Dame needs to pick up a few points to stay close to the RedHawks and second-place Western Michigan, who will play the Irish next weekend.
Despite so many new distractions — weather, atmosphere, an early start and a long bus ride — Notre Dame is happy to be playing in Chicago Sunday. For Jackson and his team, at least it's an equal playing field.
“Frankly I’m ok with it. It’s better than playing in Oxford,” the coach said. “…The glass is half full right now. It’s going to be a great day and it’s going to be low winds. Talk to me on Monday if it’s a blizzard.”
Until then, the reward outweighs the risk for Notre Dame.