Detroit is one of my favourite cities in America, but it would hardly be novel to call it something of a post-apocalyptic warzone policed by cyborg policemen. I’ve travelled across the great state of Michigan, actually, and from Saginaw to Flint to Lansing, I pretty much thought I had the Michigan city pattern down pat – bombed out downtown, sprawling leafy suburbs surrounding it. Then I went to Ann Arbor in 2009 and fell in love.
Ann Arbor is a lively college town with a gorgeous downtown filled with restaurants, shopping and the stately campus of the University of Michigan. It was Michigan athletics that brought us here on a sunny February day in 2009. Yes, it was finally time to break my college hockey duck and see the Michigan Wolverines hockey team play, this time against the Save Ferris State Bulldogs.
Our first stop in Ann Arbor was actually Michigan Stadium. Toast wanted to see it as a lifelong Wolverines fan, poor man, whereas my only real knowledge of the Big House was learning on Square One TV how to figure out how many ping-pong balls could fill it. The Stadium fills several city blocks and is actually excavated into the ground, so it doesn’t really look that imposing from the outside.
We finally found Yost Ice Arena on a side street south of downtown, in the middle of a sports complex that included a baseball field and a practice football field, plus Crisler Arena, home of the Wolverines basketball team. Yost itself is an imposing and ornate red brick building, looking not at all out of place on a college campus.
Yost Arena was originally a basketball arena that was retrofit in the 1970’s for hockey, but you can’t really tell when you get inside. Past the ticket booths, you enter the main arena on floor level. Simple bench seats surround the ice, and brickwork makes up all four walls until you reach the white steel beams of the ceiling. A simple scoreclock hangs over centre ice, surrounded by understated championship banners.
Our seats were high in one end zone, and to my girlfriend’s horror, we discovered that the bench seats were really nothing more than wooden planks with – get this – openings in them. If you dropped your hat, it would actually fall through the floor and land on a corrugated piece of sheet metal below designed to keep things from falling to the concourse underneath. Moreover, you could actually feel the wooden stands shaking and moving underneath as the crowd roared and shifted throughout the game.
I have to admit that despite all that I had heard about the experience of going to a college hockey game, I was unprepared for a Michigan Wolverines game. Right from the first moment of the game, the band plays (why can’t more things have a band attached to them?), the students coordinate PG and R-rated cheers, and there is a commitment to being the “seventh man” that I’ve only ever seen before at Toronto FC games.
To recite a laundry list of all the clever, hilarious, profane or stupid things that go on at a Wolverines game really wouldn’t do justice to the experience. All that really needs to be said is that college students have a lot of creativity mixed with a lot of free time, and the things they have come up with makes the NCAA game one worth experiencing for yourself.
It’s a pity about the hockey, though – NCAA hockey is still clutch-and-grab central.
The arena itself is structurally ancient, with very few signs that it’s no longer 1923. The corridors are full of exposed brick and pipes and wiring, and old fixtures abound.
The highlight of any Wolverines game takes place not during the game itself, but in the second intermission. As the Zambonis circle the ice, the Pep Band plays an extended version of the Blues Brothers’ “Can’t Turn You Loose” while the entire student section performs a choreographed dance. The mayhem lasts for virtually the entire intermission.
It’s also worth mentioning that the game presentation itself is outstanding. The band and the crowd make up nearly all the noise, with very little recorded music or canned exhortations. The scoreboard is silent most of the time, and the announcer is both fun and classy.
As the Wolverines wrapped up a huge end-of-season win over Ferris State, the crowd did their usual “How much time is left?” chant leading down to the announcer’s “Last minute of play in the period”. After the crowd yelled “Thank you!”, the announcer graciously answered, “You’re welcome”. It put a cap on one of hockey’s greatest experiences. If you’ve never been to a Wolverines hockey game, go. You won’t be disappointed.