BY JAMES COOK
— TRAVERSE CITY — It’s the return of pond hockey to northern Michigan.
Except it’s not in northern Michigan. Or on an actual pond.
Traverse City Central and Traverse City West will tangle Wednesday on a frozen-over Comerica Park baseball field as part of the Hockeytown Winter Festival.
Wednesday’s predicted high is 26 degrees, partly cloudy and a 10-percent change of snow.
“We’re working to not get caught up in it all, which is definitely going to be a challenge,” Central defenseman Derek Schrank said. “It’s a huge stadium. It’s not a hockey arena; it’s a baseball field. We’re going to try to keep everything calm and collected so we don’t get too awestruck by it.”
The West-Central game is scheduled for 3:30 p.m., followed by Cadillac against Big Rapids at 7 p.m.
Players from both squads frequently play pond hockey pick-up games in the winter months, so the outdoor aspect isn’t a big deal.
“We have a lot of friends that have rinks in their back yard that we platy on quite often,” Schrank said. “Just the fact that it’s a game, not just a pick-up game (is big).”
At least four TC Central (3-3-1) players have pond rinks in their yards — Alex Oliver, Darrell Carlisle, Andrew Froese and Drew Girard-Pampu — and West (2-4) does as well.
“It’s not new, but it’s obviously going to be very different down at Comerica Park,” Trojans defender Joe Videcki said.
One difference will be a shortened warm-up time prior to the contest. The teams expect to take the ice at 3 p.m. for pre-game skates.
“The warm-up seems like it’ll be pretty normal,” West coach Jeremy Rintala said. “We’re going on (the ice) a half hour early. It’ll be a little shorter warm-up than usual. It looks like it’s only an eight- or 10-minute warm-up, and that’s the only chance the boys will have to get used to the ice and to make adjustments to anything like the sun’s glare (off the ice).”
That brief time frame is also when the teams will get to check the bounces of the boards.
“A lot of them on both sides of town have played outdoors before many times in their life,” Rintala said. “But probably never in a game in this type of situation where it really matters. Hopefully they’ll play well, have some fun with it and make a great memory.
“I’m hoping both teams can play well so it’s a positive memory for everyone. Win or lose, it’s going to be something these kids never forget. We want to take some time to look around and enjoy the atmosphere and how lucky we are, but we have to get ready for business, too.”
The game will feature regular 17-minute periods, and Central will be the home team.
“We’re really just trying to approach it like it’s another game,” Videcki said. “It’s a big game in the Big North Conference and we’re trying to get away from all the glitz and glamor of it all and trying to go down there and do work against West. The whole outdoor element — it might be snowing out and being at Comerica Park will be an experience itself.”
Central will also put its 24-game Big North unbeaten streak on the line, as the game counts as a BNC contest.
“That’s what adds to it all, is that’s our cross-town rival,” Videcki said. “We’re going down to Detroit to play them outdoors. You couldn’t ask for much more.”
Tickets are $10, and are available at the Traverse City Central and West athletic offices. Funds from tickets purchased from the schools go straight to the teams, whereas tickets bought at Comerica Park may not, Rintala said.
“We talked about it (Monday) in our team meeting about prepping for it like they would to play pond hockey,” Central coach Chris Givens said. “Certainly, it could be a lot worse than 28 or 30. That’s a pretty good day. That’s not a whole lot different from when they’re out playing pond hockey with their buddies, in terms of the weather. If it was something where it was going to be in the single digits or around zero, then you’ve got to start being careful.”
The Trojans hope to arrive early enough to see some of the Red Wings’ practice that day on the same surface.
“You see the time lapse and the pictures of the rink down there with the backdrop of the stadium, it just looks beautiful,” Givens said. “And we’re going to get the 3:30 p.m., so hopefully it’s a bright, sunny day and it’ll be a lot like playing pond hockey. On a much bigger pond.”
There will be public skates available on the CoPa rink today, Friday and next Tuesday.
Cadillac follows the West-Central game at 7 p.m. This marks the Vikings’ second straight year playing in Detroit.
The Vikings are playing Big Rapids in Detroit again, hoping to go 2-0 against the Cardinals in the Motor City. Cadillac won last season’s Dec. 19 meeting 4-0 at Joe Louis Arena.
“I do know it’s probably a lot warmer in Joe Louis Arena,” Cadillac coach Scott Graham said. “There will be an interesting glare on the ice from the lights. It’ll take some adjusting to. We’ll have to take our warm-up time to get adjusted.”
When last season’s Hockeytown Winter Festival was canceled due to the NHL lockout, Cadillac took up the Detroit Red Wings offer to play a game at the Joe in place of the outdoor contest. The Vikings ended up being invited back for the outdoor game as well, doubling up on Detroit experiences in back-to-back seasons.
“They offered all the teams that opportunity and we jumped on it,” Graham said. “A lot of people have been gearing up for a long time for this. I think everybody’s really excited. There’s a long time to think about it with a long lead up to it.”
West and Central, meanwhile, hope to capitalize on their first Detroit head-to-head matchup.
“It’s not something you get to do every day,” Schrank said. “Every team nowadays plays in an arena. Playing outdoors where the game really grew up is going to be quite the experience.”