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Ghosts, Barns, and Skating till 4

Hockey is an amazing sport. It possesses the grace and fluidity of basketball played at its highest levels (re: not the New York Knicks), as well as the violence and physical danger of football (or walking through Bogota, Columbia. At night. Holding bags of money. In a Judge's robe.).  For the majority of the United States, Hockey is an afterthought. Something that those weirdos from Canada or Minnesota play because the heater in their gym went out two years ago. But to those of us who play and those of us who watch, it is the greatest sport in the world.

For all the love this blog shows the Michigan football program, not nearly enough has been bestowed on the Men's Hockey program.  As a former rink rat who played in every IM hockey and broomball league available and ran and reffed the programs his last two years, Yost holds a special place in my heart. I still remember the crappy locker rooms under stands and sneaking beer into stadium in my equipment for that post game cold one. The nights spent there until 4am, sneaking an extra slapshot or shooting an extra bucket of pucks just because you could spend a little more time in the old barn.

Yost was a kind of cathedral to a hockey junkie. All those creaks and moans late at night or early in the evening when people ferried in and out were like the ghosts of seasons past trying to tell you something. It was a special feeling to be there, and you knew it. This was where Michigan played hockey. Where all the banners that hung over the ice were won with blood, sweat, and tears. And sometimes teeth. Where Red played. Marty, Madden, Knuble, Shields, and Morrison. You got to share that ice with them. Play and practice where they played.

To feel that rush coming out onto the ice for any game, intramural, club or otherwise was special. You knew that days, sometimes hours later, the old barn would be rocking side to side when the big team took the ice, and that you'd be there too. There was a certain joy to it.

Maybe that is why I find this particular edition of Michigan's hockey team so fascinating and so much fun to watch. They seem to share that joy. They play the game as though they're simply happy to wear the sweater, but still petrified someone will take it from them if they don't push hard enough.

When the season began, Michigan was minus its three biggest stars, nearly its entire senior class, and would be playing as many freshmen as an other class. My good friend and team expert, MB, took a look at the team and said, "Top to bottom, they're all second line players. And that ain't a bad thing." Going into the season, if you thought Porter was this good, raise your hand. His assessment was dead on. That's exactly what this team was. But given the option to one top line, two third lines, and a fourth line, I'll take Michigan's pre-season expectations in a second.

Perhaps because their wasn't that OMG player on the blue line or that cold blooded sniper to rely upon going into the season, the mind set was different. Maybe everyone was just a little bit better than we thought. Maybe this team just wanted it more. Who knows? But where they are now is where they should be. This is Michigan after all.

While perusing USCHO's previews of the upcoming semi-finals I noticed something surprising. This was Michigan's first Frozen Four since 2005, and only the fourth time in ten years Michigan had advanced to the semifinals. Why is this surprising? Fellow Semi-finalist Boston College is going for the eighth time in eleven years, and North Dakota has participated in the Frozen Four the last four years in a row. So in this context, the fact this is Michigan's first trip in three years is somewhat surprising, given its talent and coaching.

But that brings us back to why this team is different. The hunger. The balance. The fun. Several coaches have been quoted as saying this season has been as rewarding as any under their tenure. This is a special team and a special season. And to their credit, the players under stand this. They understand how much this means not just to them, but to everyone who has sat in the stands or skated on Yost's glassy surface. They've heard the ghosts. And they've listened to them.

Tonight Michigan takes to a different sheet of ice in Denver to take on a surprising Notre Dame team. The same Notre Dame team that gave Michigan everything it could handle back in January at Yost. The same team Michigan's players credit their fans and Yost for beating.

This time neither team will have a "home ice" advantage, as their homes are thousands of miles away. But this is not to say Michigan won't have support, we know certain people who will be there cheering them on. For my part, I will sit down on my couch with several good friends from Ann Arbor, don my jersey, drink a beer, and root against my wife's Fightin' Irish as though they were the devil incarnate. The Wolverines will be well represented tonight.

Tonight when I watch the game I know a little bit of that rush will come back. It always does. And this game will mean even more because I know those kids feel the same way.