Soldier Field hosts college hockey

Soldier Field played host to NCAA hockey Sunday, with Notre Dame, Miami (Ohio), Minnesota and Wisconsin in action. Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

CHICAGO -- Nate Parenteau and three friends left Minneapolis around noon on Saturday, making the six-and-a-half-hour drive here for a weekend the longtime buddies had been planning since the July announcement that hockey -- and, specifically, their Golden Gophers -- would be coming to Soldier Field.

They hit the town in Wrigleyville on Saturday night, grabbed brunch Sunday morning and later that afternoon found themselves among the 52,051 heavily-wrapped fans for the Hockey City Classic, in which No. 2 Minnesota fell to No. 18 Wisconsin, 3-2, after No. 12 Notre Dame topped No. 3 Miami (Ohio) 2-1.

"I thought it was especially exciting to look forward to this because the NHL was put off for a while," said one of Parenteau's friends, 24-year-old Sam Guidarelli. "We didn't even think there might be an NHL season, so we thought this was going to be the pinnacle hockey event.

"We were really looking forward to it. This is basically like our spring break trip right now."

From ski pants to winter hats, and especially their school's sweaters, the quartet was outfitted for an environment that could have been mistaken for a ninth Chicago Bears home game had there not been an extra intermission between each contest.

Parking lots outside the stadium were packed with tailgaters. The concession lines were full. Players had NFL warming benches to sit on to keep from freezing in the 30-degree weather. Many wore eyeblack. An ambitious Miami fan even tried to storm the field, to get to the rink, before security guards got the better of him.

"I apologize for the hat," Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said at his postgame news conference, donning an ivy cap. "I'm still trying to warm up my body heat inside."

But this was Hockey Day in America, a day-long celebration of the sport throughout the United States. And the celebration was not lost on those in the crowd -- even those from enemy territory.

Parenteau and two of his friends were actually roommates at Minnesota-Duluth, but they were all here Sunday to cheer his cousin Jake, a Gophers defenseman. Nate Parenteau wore Jake's No. 6 jersey, drawing attention from other fans on the concourse. He estimated that 30 family members had made the trip from back home for this event.

Kevin Bazooband was the only of the four friends to have attended Minnesota, and he had one of his friends still enrolled at the school buy the $50 student tickets back in the fall.

"I don't even like hockey," Bazooband, 23, cracked. "This is a fun time. I knew this was going to be fun."

The group, which had attended White Bear Lake High together back in Minnesota, had seats in the 200 level but found themselves sitting up in section 434 late as the Gophers trailed 3-0 and the crowd began to thin.

At 61,500 seats, Soldier Field is the smallest NFL stadium. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was struck by the intimacy of the venue, saying he did not feel like he was watching the contest "from the moon."

"You don't get a game-day atmosphere like this in hockey," he said. "I think that's one of the great things; the fans for the four schools out here tailgating and having fun with each other, that's an additional element to the atmosphere around college hockey, which I think was really neat about something like this."

Because of sunlight from the west side of the stadium, officials offered all teams a chance to switch sides at the 10-minute mark of the third period, a perk Notre Dame elected to pass up after goaltender Steven Summerhays told coach Jeff Jackson that it would not be an issue.

"I don't think we ever fully adjusted," Fighting Irish junior forward Jeff Costello said of the conditions. "The sun kept moving. … But it was tough, especially when you're skating fast and the wind gets in your eyes and your eyes start watering, makes it even harder to see. But once you got going and kind of got used to the shadows and the sun beating down on your face, it was just like playing when you're growing up and making the simple plays to get the job done."

Costello scored what proved to be the game-winner in the first contest, off an Anders Lee miss with 10 minutes left in the third period to make it 2-0.

Freshman forward Mario Lucia had scored the day's first goal less than 13 minutes into the second period. His father, former Notre Dame defenseman and current Minnesota coach Don, would leave the ice in less spectacular fashion hours later but would not let his team's loss sour an otherwise special day.

"It wasn't that cold, the guys had a great time," Don Lucia said. "Last night I had to get them off the ice; they would've probably stayed and practiced a couple hours if they could've. … The experience was terrific. Playing in Madison on Friday we talked about, 'Let's keep our focus for the game up front.' The guys did a great job and came out and ultimately didn't win, so that's the disappointing part. But all in all, just a quality experience for the players involved, and I think the fans had a good time. I know the Gopher fans, we had a great group that came down tonight and I think they enjoyed themselves, too.

"That's what to me this game was a little bit about -- an event, to experience something like that. So it was two thumbs up for everything. The organizing committee did a fantastic job and it really felt like an NCAA environment the way it was handled, it was treated since we got here."

There could be a "time and place" for a similar event to take place at Notre Dame Stadium, Swarbrick said in between games, but nothing is imminent.

Asked to give an opening statement moments earlier following the Irish win, Jackson was straight to the point.

"I'll be brief. I know [Wisconsin is] right next to us, so in memory of Bob Johnson, it was a great day for hockey," he said, referencing the legendary former Badgers coach. "So, that's my opening statement."