photo courtesy Cleveland Browns
“The Joys of Home Ownership.”
My father had that go-to line ready any time I bent his ear with a story of trying to fix something – or more likely shelling out money to hire somebody who knew what they were doing – when my wife and I lived in a 100-year-old house in Lakewood (I had to ask her to please not call “Rent-a-Husband” while I was at home).
Dad’s saying came to mind this week.
All of the teams competing in the series of outdoor games at FirstEnergy Stadium, built around the Faceoff on the Lake between Ohio State and The Team Up North, are experiencing “The Joys of Playing Outdoors.”
Unpredictable Northeast Ohio weather and a temporary ice surface make unpredictable conditions about the only thing you can predict.
But imperfect ice did not dampen the spirit of the teams or the 45,000+ college hockey fans that watched the Buckeyes’ 4-2 win Saturday at the home of the Cleveland Browns.
There were multiple delays for repairs to the ice, but University of Michigan head coach Brandon Naurato was not about to blame the issues for his team’s loss.
“It is what it is,” Naurato said. “We knew coming in there could be some stuff like that. You just have to fight through it. One of the two teams is going to figure it out.”
Strongsville’s Dylan Duke, a sophomore forward with the Wolverines and brother of Ohio State freshman blueliner Tyler Duke, concurred.
“Both teams were playing on the same ice,” he said. “It was a level playing field.”
In the end, it was still a memorable experience for all involved.
“It was a pretty cool experience,” Dylan said. “I think it was a lot of fun for my grandparents and family and friends in the area to see me and Tyler on the ice at the same time back here in Cleveland. It’s something we’ll be able to talk about for the rest of our lives.”
The Haslam Group and the Browns have worked with the various teams and leagues to put on the series of games, as well as additional public and private events.
“We are pleased with the performance of the ice, and we will always prioritize the safety of everyone on it," a spokesperson said in a prepared statement. "We appreciate our ice maintenance team’s efforts and expertise to ensure it is in optimal condition, as well its ability to promptly remediate any areas that should be addressed.”
It seems like the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in an outdoor game in an NFL stadium has so far outweighed any concerns over the playing conditions.
“The people here in Cleveland did an incredible job,” said Ohio State head coach Steve Rohlik. “It was an incredible experience that our guys will remember for the rest of their lives.”
Although it was announced first, and provided the anchor event around which the series was built, the Faceoff on the Lake was not the first game. On Friday, February 17, John Carroll University’s Division I ACHA (club) team defeated Canisius, 5-4, at the stadium.
There were similar issues with the ice during that game but, despite a pair of 5-10 minute delays, Blue Streaks head coach Scott Shantery still had positive things to say about the experience for his team, which rallied from an early 2-0 deficit to win.
“There were some nerves at the start, and we needed to figure out what style we were going to play,” said Shantery. “But we battled back.”
Although the crowd was not nearly as large as the one that showed up the next day to see Ohio State and The Team up North, the Blue Streaks could feel the energy.
“The atmosphere was really good – you could definitely hear the fans,” he said. “We had a good group of students and it was great when our guys got to do the ‘walk-off’ right past them”.
Charlie Tuggey, a former Gilmour Academy star who recently joined the JCU roster, scored twice and added an assist to spark the JCU comeback. He said the team was pretty amped up.
“We were saying it’s crazy that we get to do this,” said Tuggey, a lifelong Browns fan. “It took us about half a period to settle down and dial it in.”
Tuggey said it was different having the fans set back and not along the glass, but you could still hear them making noise when there was a goal or a big hit.
“The noise was very cool,” he said. “It was a good feeling to contribute and help the team get the win in an event like that.”
With temps in the 20’s, the ice was not soft at all, although Tuggey said it was “a little jumpy”.
“Both teams figured out in warmups that you couldn’t try anything cute with the puck,” he said. “We just had to get the puck deep and grind it out.”
The series will continue on Thursday, February 23, with the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League hosting the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in the USHL Cleveland Classic. The USHL is the top tier of Junior (20U) hockey in the United States, with many of the players moving on to NCAA Division I and, subsequently, professional careers.
As I write this Monday, Thursday’s weather seems problematic, with temperatures expected to hit 60 degrees, but Phantoms head coach Ryan Ward does not seem concerned. Rain poses a bigger threat but, while precipitation is expected on Wednesday, skies look to be clear Thursday leading up to the 6:00 p.m. puck drop.
“We don’t think about the conditions or put energy into things we can’t control,” Ward said. “We will control what we can and play our game.”
“Both teams will be playing on the same sheet,” he added.
Ward said his team, which will practice at Rocket Mortgage Field House on Wednesday, will follow the same routine and try to limit distractions ahead of the game. We’ll call that a good problem to have with many coaches and players having family coming in.
“The guys are all jacked up!” said Ward. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
The USHL is the main feeder system for college hockey. The Phantoms play out of the Covelli Center in Youngstown and have 17 Division I recruits and three NHL draft picks on their roster. They recently made some high-profile additions, adding two members of the Slovakian World Junior team in addition to high-profile prospects Zachary Morin out of Quebec, and Sascha Boumedienne of the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets 16U team, who will join the team next season.
Playing at FirstEnergy Stadium (Native Clevelander Blake Bolden – a former women’s college and pro hockey star and now a scout for the Los Angeles Kings – will drop the ceremonial first puck) presents an opportunity for the Phantoms to introduce hockey fans in the Greater Cleveland area to their team and league.
“This is great for growing hockey in Ohio,” said Ward. “The USHL is a great brand of hockey and doesn’t get enough credit.”
This weekend (February 25 & 26), the semifinals of both the Brooklyn and Kent regions of the Ohio High School Athletic Association will take place. The four winners will return for the regional championship games on Friday, March 3.
The series will conclude with the March 4 game between the American Hockey League’s Cleveland Monsters and Wilkes-Barre Penguins. That game is scheduled for a 1:00 p.m. faceoff.
--- Scott Harrington for Ohio Hockey Digest