By Matt Rennie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2010; 9:50 AM
ANN ARBOR, MICH. - You never know what you'll see from the 96th row of a hockey crowd, but among the most surprising possibilities might be the puck.
"Oh, you can see just fine," Becky Karakash said Saturday from the top row of Michigan Stadium. "From up here, it's kind of good because you can actually see plays develop better."
Ninety-six rows below and another 65 yards or so to center ice, the Michigan hockey team beat Michigan State, 5-0, in front of 113,411, the largest crowd in hockey history. That also made the stadium, for a few hours, the fifth-most populous city in Michigan, ahead of Ann Arbor itself and just behind Lansing.
Hours before the game, campfires blazed throughout the parking lots near the stadium, with many fans turning to liquid refreshments for additional warmth. Footballs flew through the air, but those games of catch took place alongside impromptu hockey games, where tennis balls served as pucks and overturned trash barrels as goals.
Inside the stadium, fans batted beachballs, performed the Wave, chanted, danced and sang along with the Michigan marching band. A eight-mph wind blew steadily throughout, making the 41-degree temperature at faceoff feel like 34, but most fans seemed well-prepared.
"Layers. Lots of layers," said Joanna Kastely, standing next to Karakash in the stadium's highest reaches. Wearing her souvenir ticket on a green and white Michigan State lavalier, Kastely said her biggest challenge was neither weather nor vantage point.
"My husband's a Michigan fan; that's why he's down there," she said, gesturing half a section over. "We're a mixed marriage."
As one might expect of the man who charged money for 96th-row seats to a hockey game, Michigan Athletic Director David Brandon doesn't lack for confidence. A backup quarterback for Bo Schembechler's Michigan football teams in the early 1970s before entering the business world, Brandon, 58, was chairman and CEO of Domino's Pizza before taking his current job earlier this year.
The outdoor hockey project had been launched before his tenure began, and Brandon took over the marketing of the event with one goal in mind: "If we were going to take this on," he said in a phone interview earlier this week, "we wanted to make sure we had the largest crowd ever to watch a hockey game anywhere."
That didn't prove to be a problem. Tickets went on sale April 21 at $15 apiece; by May 6, public sales were halted after more than 100,000 had been purchased. (A limited number of single tickets were made available this past week.) His goal seemingly achieved, Brandon saw chances to maximize the possibilities.
"So many people will be in that crowd who have never been to a Michigan hockey game before," he said. "I really see it in a classic marketing sense as an opportunity to introduce our product to a wider audience."
Gordon "Red" Berenson can remember a day when some might have wondered why he would have wanted to be associated with the Michigan hockey program. Berenson was an all-American at Michigan in 1961 and '62 before enjoying a 17-year career in the NHL.
In 1984, he took over as coach of a Michigan hockey program that was languishing. Winner of more NCAA hockey championships than any other school, Michigan had qualified for the NCAA tournament just once since 1965. Yost Ice Arena was suffering neglect, and few were even around to notice. Not until Berenson's sixth season did the Wolverines draw more than 100,000 fans in an entire season.
All week, Berenson tried to maintain focus, reminding audiences that this was "a league game," meaning the result would count in the conference standings. But when the offical attendance was announced in the third period, the 71-year-old coach clapped his hands behind the Michigan bench, and afterward, he was still beaming.
"Pretty good show, eh," said Berenson, whose teams have been to the past 20 NCAA tournaments and played before sellout home crowds for the past 14 seasons. "For hockey to come in here and have an event like this, it's really special."
Though a comprehensive survey was difficult to perform, it's safe to say few fans traveled farther for Saturday's game than the friends and family of Michigan senior captain Carl Hagelin.
The group of 20 who made the 4,135-mile trek from Sodertalje, Sweden, were easy to spot amid the throng. While many fans sported hockey jerseys, only a select few - in two groups on opposite sides of the stadium - donned those designed by Hagelin's sister Helene. The bright yellow sweaters had "Sweden" emblazoned in capital letters across the front and "Hagelin" and his jersey number 12 across the back.
"My daughter took care of that," said Boris Hagelin, who said he has attended about four games a season during his son's career. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Carl Hagelin made the trip worthwhile for his family by scoring Michigan's third goal 12:12 into the second period and its fourth 8:57 into the third.
"I think we all got goosebumps" when the attendance was announced, Hagelin said. "It felt great to be part of history."
Said Michigan State sophomore Torey Krug: "When we look back on it, we'll remember it as a great experience. It was like we were little kids again."
At its essence, that's what this was: a hockey game between rival twenty-somethings on a sheet of ice in the middle of a field at the heart of the state's fifth-largest city.
Anything more - outdoor party, historical footnote, marketing opportunity, or family reunion - depended entirely on where you were sitting.