Hockey City Classic Once in a Lifetime Event for Badgers

Chicago native Frankie Simonelli lays a huge hit at Soldier Field Sunday - Photo Credit: Larry Radloff Photography

There were a lot of questions about Wisconsin playing outdoors this season at Soldier Field in Chicago. After all, it's been just three years since the outdoor game at Camp Randall. Additionally, Wisconsin was forced to give up a home date at the Kohl Center in order to make the game work.

Many fans from Wisconsin -- as well as Minnesota -- made known they were not happy with the decision to schedule the event. Many considered the poor ice conditions that were virtually inevitable not worth it in the grand scheme of things.

While the skepticism of the game is far from 'knucklehead' territory, as one Minnesota scribe brashly put it, I thought the general negativity over scheduling the event simply seemed like another opportunity for people who like to complain.

In events like this, there is always a risk-reward to consider. Personally, Notre Dame and Miami leading off for one of college hockey's long-time rivalries like Wisconsin and Minnesota made more sense than not.

In reality, all it took was watching about three minutes of practice at Soldier Field on Saturday to understand the significance of the event to the people that seem to be getting overlooked in the whole thing: the players.

From the moment the first Badger (Jefferson Dahl, if you were wondering) stepped on the ice Saturday afternoon for practice until the team had to be chased off the rink by the event staff so they could Zamboni for the next practice, there was nothing but smiles and pure joy.

For a team that's gone through one of the craziest seasons of all time, this was a moment for them to truly enjoy the game that they fell in love with as little kids. Of course there was a game to win on Sunday, but this event was so much more than that for so many reasons.

Sure, some of the players had never played outside before. Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves noted it was Brendan Woods' first time on outdoor ice. I'm also pretty sure Nic Kerdiles didn't play too much pond hockey growing up in California.

But that made it even more special. It was a chance for players who grew up on outdoor ice in Minnesota and Wisconsin to team up with guys from around the country who haven't had that same experience. Throw in a few Canadians and a couple local boys from the Chicago area, and you've got yourself the perfect cocktail.

Of course, the locals I'm referring to are Park Ridge native Michael Mersch and Bensenville native Frankie Simonelli. The pair grew up playing together with Team Illinois before moving on to represent their country at the National Team Development Program.

Mersch, whose family has season tickets at Soldier Field for the Bears, estimated that his mom distributed 25 tickets to friends and family for the game. Simonelli had quite the crew himself, with fans bringing in signs to cheer on their local hero.

In some sort of poetic justice, it was Simonelli who won the team's shootout contest held at practice on Saturday. Seemed like destiny, given the surroundings.

After running through some drills to get used to the conditions on Saturday, the coaching staff let the players goof off a little bit and enjoy their time on a historic playing surface. Some players tested how the puck would come off the boards, while others took pictures and soaked up the experience.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before a pigskin made an appearance. Hell, I think I saw Kerdiles throw more perfect spirals over the weekend at Soldier Field than I saw from Bears quarterback Jay Cutler all season. If this hockey thing doesn't work out, maybe Gary Andersen should give the kid a chance.

The voice of the Badgers, Brian Posick, even got in on the action, throwing fade patterns to assistant equipment manager Tyler Lindauer. Posick noted he also had an opportunity to throw the football around at Lambeau in 2006 when the Badgers played Ohio State, and at Camp Randall in 2010 when Wisconsin hosted Michigan.

One of the things Eaves has talked about all year has been using this game as a springboard down the stretch. He reiterated that fact after the win.

"One of the things we talked about this past week is that we're in the dog days of the second half of the WCHA," Eaves said. "To have an event like this becomes an emotional energizer. It's different. It's unique. It's not just another game in the second half of the season."

Wisconsin captain John Ramage is the only current Badger to skate in both the Hockey City Classic and the Camp Randall game. After the game, he talked about what this event means to the current team.

"It was a great feeling, being in Madison and at Camp Randall," Ramage said. "But for our team, this year, playing at Soldier Field and playing against Minnesota, a big rival, I think this definitely overtakes it. Today was a big win for us and hopefully it will push us forward to the end."

Chicago native Michael Mersch may have summed it up best.

"It was a surreal experience."

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