By JERAMY STOVER, Staff Reporter
The two universities are separated by a mere 31 miles, making the Grizzlies UM-Dearborn’s second closest rival in the Great Lakes Collegiate Hockey League. And with the season two-thirds complete, only two points separate the teams.
On Jan. 3, the rivalry will be taken outdoors for a winter classic-esque game at Clark Park in Detroit.
It’s a game that leaves UM-Dearborn senior forward Jeremy Klotz filled with emotion.
“It’s going to be a game to remember that’s for sure,” said Klotz. “So much anticipation has been built up over the last three years for this game, so when it comes time to drop the puck, everyone will be ready to go.”
“Anytime you play a team four times in a season some tension is bound to build,” added Ryan Arndt. “Our games against OU are always competitive, physical games.”
Oakland has dominated the rivalry in recent years. The Wolverines are just 2-10 in the last three seasons against their bitter rival, including an 8-1 loss in the GLCHL semifinals in 2012.
“Oakland’s always a good measuring stick along with Adrian,” said Wolverines coach Chris Haltinner. “You put yourself up against those teams and teams that always make that national tournament. We hope this year we return the losses they’ve handed to us.”
Haltinner will be participating in his third outdoor game of his hockey career. He played in an outdoor game while playing junior hockey in Canada for the Aurora Tigers. He was part of the coaching staff for UM-Dearborn when it played at Michigan Stadium in 2010. Now he leads the Wolverines as they head into their next outdoor challenge.
“This is something that these guys, I don’t know if they fully understand, this is something that take for a lifetime,” Haltinner said.
Many hockey players learn the game out on a pond as a young kid. Playing pond hockey over Christmas break in grade school is a common tradition for hockey players. Now the Wolverines will use their own Christmas break to prepare for the real thing: a hockey game outdoor in the elements with their hated rival.
“We are both fighting for a spot in nationals every game, and with the way the schedule shaped up, having to pay them four times in a two month period will only increase the intensity in each game,” Klotz said.
With only a third of the season remaining, the two teams are separated by only two points. Both teams have six wins in their last 10 games and are looking to come out of the break with a fast start.
“With Oakland, I think the biggest thing there is the proximity and their always a worthy opponent,” Haltinner said. “It’s gonna be a battle I can tell you that.”
With a game played Jan. 2 in Dearborn and the outdoor game Jan. 3, the Wolverines know a sweep against Oakland will help them get to where they want to be: the national tournament.
“It would be huge, we are right where we need to be to head to the national tournament, we need these two wins to stay there,” Arndt said.
UM-Dearborn is ranked 19th in the latest ACHA rankings. Oakland is not far behind ranked 23rd. The Wolverines have played three more games than Oakland so far in the season, making each game they play even more important.
“This year we know we have a great shot at making it,” Haltinner said. “All of our players want to make it. It’s going to be a battle every night, our guys know every game counts.”
Last season, an outdoor game at Clark Park was scheduled between the two teams. It was eventually cancelled the day of the game due to poor ice conditions. Haltinner remembers sitting on the team bus on the way to the rink when he received the phone calling informing him the game was not being played.
Having experience playing outdoors, he knows what his players will have to adjust to while playing in the frigid temperatures and possibly snow.
“Outdoors is tough, you have to work with the ice conditions you have. The first five minutes are usually good ice but after that anything can happen,” he said.
While every player will have to get used to ice conditions, only a few Wolverines have plentiful experience playing in the rivalry.
UM-Dearborn has just five seniors on their roster, leaving many players looking to them to help understand what this game truly means.
“We have stressed the importance of this upcoming series, plus the hype of the outdoor game has helped for sure,” Arndt said.
With the special occasion comes special equipment. Haltinner agreed to get new jerseys for his players to wear after they had requested old-school looking uniforms.
“This year we actually had a company contact Jase (Paciocco) with all the ideas and designs,” Klotz said. “I am extremely excited to sport these jerseys, because they are a symbol of this year’s team.”
This game is more than just another game for the Wolverines. Not only will it be played in a special setting at Clark Park, but it also is vitally important in the season’s standings.
With new jerseys and a new attitude, the Wolverines will look to skate past Oakland and march their way to a national tournament berth.
“We brought in a new culture this year, and we’re trying to really turn around the program,” Haltinner said. “It’s been way too long since we’ve been out of the national tournament.”