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Big House ready for big hockey game

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It feels like a football Saturday at Michigan Stadium. Traffic is heavy. Fans are tailgating. Everyone is warming up for a 3 p.m. clash between rivals Michigan and Michigan State.

Only this isn’t a football Saturday. It’s a hockey Saturday.

When the P.A. announcer gives the attendance, he won’t tell the fans they are part of the “largest crowd watching a football game anywhere in America today,” as he usually does. He is expected to declare that they are part of the largest crowd to have watched a hockey game.

Anywhere. Ever.

About 110,000 fans are expected for the event, dubbed the Big Chill at the Big House. That would shatter the world record by more than 30,000.

This is about romance, remembering the roots of the game – like legendary Michigan coach Red Berenson, 71 years old now, recalling how he used to skate on Wascana Creek as a boy in Regina, Saskatchewan.

But, frankly, this is about bragging rights, too. These schools started the outdoor hockey phenomenon in 2001, when Michigan State hosted Michigan at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich., at an event dubbed the Cold War. MSU set the world record that day with a crowd of 75,544.

The record stood even though the NHL copied the idea with outdoor games dubbed the Heritage Classic and the Winter Classic, drawing as many as 71,217 fans for the 2008 Winter Classic – the first NHL outdoor game in the United States – between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y.

The record stood until earlier this year, when 77,803 fans came to a game at the world championships in Germany.

Michigan and Michigan State folks look back warmly on the Cold War, and the Wolverines not only want to beat the Spartans on the ice, they want to beat them in the record books.

“It was like playing a pond hockey game in front of the whole world,” said Montreal Canadiens forward Mike Cammalleri, who scored two goals for Michigan in the Cold War. “It was like a surreal experience. It was amazing. Even back then, you thought about, ‘What if they do this at the Big House?’ ” Cammalleri smiled.

“Of course, I may be a little biased, but I think we do things a little better at Michigan,” Cammalleri said. “I imagine it’s going to be a great experience for everybody.”