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The Cold War
Michael Farber
February 09, 2004
When the Wolverines face off against the Spartans, it's the FIERCEST RIVALRY on ice
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February 09, 2004

The Cold War

When the Wolverines face off against the Spartans, it's the FIERCEST RIVALRY on ice

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THERE ARE CERTAIN things a University of Michigan student might be expected to memorize in his years in Ann Arbor: an e.e. cummings poem, a mathematical formula or two, a few economic principles and the cheer that serenaded Michigan State defenseman Jared Nightingale at Yost Ice Arena in the first period of a game last Valentine's Day. As Nightingale stepped into the penalty box, the student sections on the opposite side of the rink roared—as they regularly do—"See ya! Chump, d--k, wuss, d-----bag, a--hole, p--ck, cheater, b--ch, whore, c------ker." While embarrassingly profane, the chant was easier on the ears than the 2½ hours of abuse directed at Spartans goalie Matt Migliaccio, who, Michigan fan sentiment notwithstanding, was neither a sieve nor ugly.

There is a natural rivalry between the massive state universities a mere 64 miles apart, one that permeates their football and basketball games. But given the physical nature of the sport and the intimacy of the settings, Michigan-Michigan State hockey exists on a higher—or, given the vulgarity, lower—plane. Of course, choreographed calumnies are directed toward all teams visiting Yost, but a special zeal is reserved for Michigan State, a school whose students, according to another ritual Michigan chant, "Can't read, can't write." This slander should have been forever dispelled in 1998, after Wolverines coach Red Berenson benched goaltender Marty Turco for a game at Michigan State because Turco had cut a class. "I was skating in the warmups, and I heard about it," says Turco, the NCAA's alltime winningest netminder, now with the Dallas Stars. "There must have been 15 signs on the glass at Munn [Ice Arena] that said HOW'S SCHOOL TODAY, TURCO?" Each word was spelled impeccably.

"They'd say they were the smart school, and we'd say we were the party school," says Jason Woolley, the Detroit Red Wings defenseman who played at Michigan State from 1988-89 through '90-91. "I had no problem with that. I just remember that every game against them was like the seventh game of an NHL playoff series. You know how you learn to hate the guys on the other team when it's a long series? Well, we felt that way toward them every game."

Michigan has the 107,000-seat Big House for football, but it also has a 6,637-seat nuthouse in Yost, built in 1923. Michigan State has the more sedate, 30-year-old, 6,470-seat Munn, where there have been 320 consecutive sellouts. No ticket on either campus is tougher to come by.

That has not always been the case. Since the first game between the schools, on Jan. 11,1922, the fortunes of the respective programs rarely have followed parallel arcs. Michigan State dropped hockey in 1932 during the Depression, but Michigan soldiered on. The Wolverines won six NCAA titles between 1948 and '56 and another in 1964, but by the late '60s their program was in decline. The Spartans, who resumed playing in 1950, surged ahead of their rivals in the early '80s under Ron Mason, a dapper man who coached a conservative playing style and won 924 games, the most in collegiate history. "When I first got here [in '79], Michigan was an excellent team, far better than we were," says Mason, 64, who gave up coaching in 2002 to become the Spartans' athletic director. "Then we got going, and they fell by the wayside. In my first 10 years the Michigan games didn't have the excitement they do today. Then Red [Berenson] came, and after five or six years his teams started to get good. That's when the rivalry really started."

Berenson was a two-time All-America center who played his final game for Michigan in the 1962 NCAA tournament in Utica, N.Y., then was driven to Boston Garden to debut with the Montreal Canadiens the following night. When he returned to Ann Arbor as Wolverines coach in 1984, memories of his days on campus must have been fuzzy. He showed up at his first Michigan golf outing wearing pants that were green—a Spartans color. "I was greeted with, 'Geez, where'd you get those?' " Berenson recalls. "That was the last time I wore them." The right hue came before the right mix. Berenson had losing records in his first three seasons; meanwhile, the Spartans won the 1986 NCAA title. "Michigan State was the benchmark then," he says. "That was a model program, one we were trying to emulate."

Two unrelated events boosted the Wolverines' program. The first came in February 1989, when Ann Arbor attorney Paul Gallagher suggested that the Wolverines wear the football team's famed wing design on their helmets. The maize stripes gave Michigan hockey an identity more striking than even Berenson's renowned up-tempo style. "Those ugly things," says Ryan Miller, the Buffalo Sabres goaltender who won the 2001 Hobey Baker Award as a Spartans sophomore. "You see those things flashing around and you're irked before the game starts."

The second was lifted directly from Cornell, whose fans arrived en masse for a 1991 NCAA playoff series, armed with chants that were untoward and unnerving. The next season Michigan supporters began taking up those chants. Suddenly the "Go Green, Go White!" that had reverberated through Yost whenever State and its fans visited was replaced with a maize-and-blue—emphasis on blue—passion. "My parents are a little hesitant to bring family to games," said then Michigan senior Andy Burnes, a defenseman from Battle Creek, last season. "They'll hear things they won't hear in a PG-13 movie."

There have been other moments not suited for the impressionable, especially the 20-on-20 brawl at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena in 1991. (In addition to facing each other at Munn and Yost, the teams play at least once each year in the Red Wings' 20,000-seat home.) One of the Wolverines' Toronto-area recruits was at the game, and as Berenson tells the story, the boy's father was pointing out that one advantage of college hockey in the States compared with junior hockey in Canada was the absence of fighting—then all hell broke loose.

Michigan State and Michigan have reached the Frozen Four a combined 12 times since 1992, a better reflection of the competitiveness that has marked the series over the past 15 years. Their best game might have been on Nov. 4, 2000, when the Spartans scored early and hung on to beat No. 1-ranked and previously undefeated Michigan 1-0 at Yost behind Miller's 31 saves. The most storied certainly occurred on Oct. 6, 2001—the so-called Cold War—when the teams played before an NCAA-record crowd of 74,554 on a rink built at midfield of Spartan Stadium. Mason says they could have sold 100,000 tickets. "At the skate that morning we were firing pucks over the [football] goalposts," says former Michigan defenseman Mike Komisarek, now a Canadien. "Cool. It was like playing pond hockey." The score was 3-3, typical in that only 15 of 58 meetings since 1990 have been decided by more than two goals.

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