Big House puts on big show

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- There were fireworks, a Stealth bomber flyover, a representative from the Guinness Book of World Records, the obligatory appearance by Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, and people.

Lots of people. In fact, exactly 113,411 folks crammed into Michigan Stadium on Saturday to watch the Wolverines' 5-0 rout of Michigan State. Not only is that the largest crowd for a hockey game, but it's also the most people to ever witness any NCAA event.

And while the game proved to be the largest ever in terms of attendance, it's somewhat fitting the date of the latest in the recent spate of outdoor hockey games was 12-11-10, because it feels like the clock is winding down on this novelty, at least at the college level.

When these two teams squared off in East Lansing nine years ago, it was a spectacle. Like motocross legend Travis Pastrana's first attempt at a double backflip or the Tyson-Holyfield fights, you had to watch.

"When we did it in 2001, it was like the Apollo mission," said Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, who, as an assistant athletic director in 2001 spearheaded the Cold War that attracted 74,544 fans to Spartan Stadium.

Since then, we've seen games at Lambeau Field, Fenway Park and Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. College hockey takes the spotlight briefly. The crowd scatters, the rink is torn down, and the lasting impact on the college game and its growth is difficult to measure.

"Now, it's like the space shuttle," Hollis said. "They're taking off and landing and you don't even know it. It's becoming routine."

That begs the question: At what point does the law of diminishing returns kick in and fans say, "Eh, it's been done?"

Hollis says the concept of outdoor hockey games is not passé, but, in his words, the events must be "special and unique." Central Collegiate Hockey Association commissioner Tom Anastos, whose conference has had at least one representative in all but one of the five Division I outdoor games played to date, says allowing players and fans to reconnect with hockey's roots is a big part of the allure.

"[Playing outdoors] is a big part of the culture and history of the sport," Anastos said. "It's been a great sell so far and I hope it will continue. There's not one player you're going to ask who doesn't love this environment."

One issue is that only a handful of college programs -- Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and perhaps Notre Dame -- have the cache to fill these oversized venues. And many of the outdoor events, including Michigan-Michigan State and the Boston College-Boston University match at Fenway Park this past January, have thrived because of ravenous local fan bases.

Saturday's game set the bar for outdoor hockey not only in terms of attendance, but also for presentation. Players for both teams raved about the ice. There were no problems with the dasher boards or the glass. Michigan Stadium's close quarters -- there's not much room between the sidelines and the first row of bleachers -- made for a relatively intimate setting. Well, as intimate as a throng of that many people can be, anyway.

"What you saw today was 113,000 people in the Big House, many of whom were not college hockey fans or even hockey fans," Hollis said. "Most of them will walk away with an appreciation for college hockey."

So what is the future of outdoor college hockey?

Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves has talked about hosting an outdoor game every four years to give every Badger a chance to experience the thrill, which runs counter to Hollis' "unique and special" decree. Could a Michigan-Ohio State outdoor game fill Ohio Stadium? A game at Notre Dame Stadium would certainly generate interest. Maybe Penn State's Beaver Stadium becomes an option when the Nittany Lions launch varsity hockey in 2012-13. And if the NHL decides to bring its Winter Classic to Yankee Stadium, are there two college hockey teams with the requisite name recognition to fill that park?

"I don't know what's next," Anastos said. "When Michigan decided to do it, I think they had certain expectations and, in my opinion, this had to far exceed what anybody could have imagined.

"It's going to have to be something special to top this. This was pretty incredible."

Mike Eidelbes writes for InsideCollegeHockey.com. For more from Inside College Hockey, check out insidecollegehockey.com.