A look at the Classic: RedHawks eager to play outdoor game

Miami University’s hockey team will participate in its first-ever outdoor game next Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago, and whatever had to be done to make that happen, it should be worth the effort.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the student-athlete, first and foremost,” said MU senior associate athletic director Josh Fenton, the school’s hockey administrator.

It’s called the Hockey City Classic. The RedHawks will play Notre Dame at 1 p.m. and Minnesota will face Wisconsin at 4:30 p.m. on a rink that’s been constructed in the middle of a National Football League stadium.

For Miami, it’s a Central Collegiate Hockey Association game and a chance to play on a national stage. Thousands of RedHawk fans will be there. And maybe, just maybe, it won’t be the last outdoor game that includes the boys from Oxford.

How it started

OfficeMax is the title sponsor for the inaugural Classic. The company sees it as a smart business move, but for John Kenning, it’s a lot more than that.

Kenning, executive vice president and president of OfficeMax Workplace, is a 1984 Miami graduate. His alma mater has a nationally prominent hockey program and thousands of alumni in the Chicago area. Starting from there, it’s not hard to see how the dots got connected.

“It actually started with Team Marketing looking at this kind of program in conjunction with Intersport,” Kenning said. “Team Marketing has been associated with OfficeMax for about eight months. I’ve been associated with them for the past couple years, and they’ve been looking at this event for a number of years in Chicago. The conversations were always around Notre Dame and Miami participating.

“When we first talked with Intersport, they had said they were talking to Miami. I said, ‘If Miami’s part of it, then we would be very interested in being part of it.’ We wanted Notre Dame to be part of it because of Notre Dame’s presence in Chicago, and then we wanted a couple Big Ten teams to be a part of it. We would have four Top 20-ranked teams playing in Chicago and able to drive to this event.

“If you look at Miami now, there’s two kids from Chicago on the team, Steven Spinell and Cody Murphy, so there’s a lot of what I would call Chicago capability there. I’m proud of the school, and I have a son that’s a senior at Miami, so I kind of look at it as a family thing.”

Kenning isn’t the only OfficeMax executive with a Miami degree. Jim Barr, executive vice president and chief digital officer, has one as well. MU is an OfficeMax customer, which certainly didn’t hurt anything in this process, and the company has done some sponsorship deals with the Miami athletic department.

Kenning is a season ticket holder for RedHawk hockey, attended some games during his days as a student and has seen two games at Steve Cady Arena this season.

On Classic day, Kenning will be a member of the sponsorship team, but will he be wearing the Miami jersey that his son gave him for Christmas?

“I’ll for sure at least have a Miami hat on because it’s going to be cold there,” Kenning said. “I’m sure a lot of people there will have Miami stuff on. It’s all part of the tradition.”

A marquee event

Drew Russell is the Hockey City Classic organizer. He is the vice president of sports properties for Intersport. It was Russell who called Miami coach Enrico Blasi in the fall of 2011 about being part of the Classic.

“Notre Dame was opening up their new ice arena, and they didn’t want to give up a date,” Russell said. “I knew there was a strong Miami alumni base here, so I said, ‘What the heck, I’ll call Miami.’ I left Coach Blasi a voicemail. He probably called me back within seven minutes.”

That’s where it started for MU. Now it’s the biggest ticket seller among the four participating schools, and Russell is hoping to have a sellout in the 60,000 range at Soldier Field. When asked earlier this week, he said about 44,000 tickets had been sold.

“In order to move forward with this, we wanted to have the best possible matchups and schools that have strong alumni bases of 10,000 or more in Chicagoland, along with teams that have a relatively short driving distance,” Russell said.

“I can’t say enough about the Miami administration from the top down. Everybody on the Miami side has really embraced this. It’s really been the model program to work with.”

Outdoor hockey games have been around forever, but the modern trend toward events like this began in 2001, when Michigan and Michigan State played before a crowd of 74,554 in the “Cold War” at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

Russell said part of what makes the Hockey City Classic unique is the fact that it’s a neutral-site event for the four programs.

The Classic isn’t the only event being held on the Soldier Field ice. Indeed, there’s been a parade of events since the ice was opened Feb. 1, and there will be one final public skate the day after the Classic.

The participating schools are being compensated for their travel accommodations, according to Russell. Miami and Wisconsin gave up home games, and those contests were bought out by the Classic to make up for the schools’ lost revenue.

Giving up a game at Steve Cady Arena is a big financial deal for MU, especially a game against Notre Dame. It’s also a key contest in the CCHA championship race.

“Wisconsin and Minnesota are doing the same thing, so it’s a little bit of give and take,” Blasi said. “Ultimately, we thought it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.”

Russell and Fenton declined to reveal the total amount that Miami is being paid, though Fenton said, “What I can say is that we’ve been made whole for what we bring in for a home game and then some. It’s a very good financial deal for Miami.”

Looking for $$$

New Miami athletic director David Sayler is headed to Chicago on Thursday and has several busy days planned. His goal is to reach out to as many MU alumni as possible in his quest to raise money for the athletic department.

“I’ve got donor meetings and lunches and breakfasts pretty much scheduled all the way through leading up to the game,” Sayler said. “It’s something that we’re going to jump on as a university.

“(Miami president David Hodge) is going, and there’s some board of trustee members that will be in attendance. So we’re really planning lots of different events and also moving our Miami administration to Chicago for a few days to really get after it and have a presence in that market.”

Sayler said his message has been well received by the Miami community thus far, and he’s not getting tired of delivering it.

“When you believe in something and you know it’s something that needs to get done, you wake up every day thinking about how you can accomplish the mission,” Sayler said. “You’ve got to go into every meeting thinking this one’s going to make the difference.

Mr. Miami Hockey

Miami fans might think that Steve Cady, the father of MU’s hockey program, would have to be involved somewhere in the midst of all this.

Cady said that’s not the case. He is a senior associate athletic director and the administrator for women’s basketball, men’s swimming and men’s track and field, and he credited Fenton and former athletic director Brad Bates for hammering out the Classic details.

Cady attended the Ohio State-Michigan game at Progressive Field in Cleveland last year and said it was an outstanding event. He believes the Hockey City Classic will be even better.

“It’s really special, something so different,” Cady said. “It’s something all those kids will be talking about 50 years from now.”

Cady knows a few things about outdoor hockey. Born in Canton, N.Y., he grew up playing the game outside.

“It’s different, but it still feels like hockey from the standpoint that you’re freezing your butt off,” Cady said. “Even with some of the high schools back then, you might as well have been outside. We’d play in a tin barn that was so cold you would’ve been warmer being outside.”

Blasi, a native of Weston, Ontario, played in an outdoor event in Switzerland.

“I wasn’t that young, maybe 14,” he said. “I think the one day it rained – we had to change our jersey every period. The next day it was sunny, and I think the third and fourth days were pretty nice evenings that were pretty enjoyable.”

The weather is obviously a significant factor. The latest forecast for game day (from The Weather Channel) is partly cloudy with a high of 29 degrees.

The Classic future

Everyone involved is confident that this will be an event to remember. Will it happen again in the future, and if it does, will Miami be involved?

“I think there’s definitely a grassroots effort from Miami alums in Chicago that would like to see an event like this become a traditional thing for Miami,” Sayler said.

Russell said he’d love to make the Classic a regular event. In this context, the definition of regular is a gray area.

“I think it’s tough when you try to do it annually,” Fenton said. “Over time, it can lose its luster a little bit. So you’ve got to make sure you’re doing it on a time frame where you can keep the fan interested and make sure it’s a real novel event where people say to themselves, ‘I need to be a part of that.’ If you do it annually, I don’t know if you’ll get that.”

But if next weekend goes as expected and Miami has a chance to return down the road, Fenton said he’s sure the school will be interested.

“We want to play in an event that’s going to garner a lot of national attention and do well for the Miami hockey program, Miami University and the athletic department,” Fenton said. “This does all of those things.”