Tough Times For Old Rivals
Michigan, Michigan State Enter Big 10 Tournament As Underdogs
by Max Bultman/CHN Reporter
When the Big Ten formed a hockey conference four seasons ago, it wouldn’t have been hard to imagine a world where Michigan and Michigan State competed for titles every year.
Minnesota may have been the league’s biggest name, but the two Mitten State programs boasted a pair of traditions that could have contended with just about anyone. The Wolverines had won nine NCAA tournaments, and the Spartans had three of their own. Both had proven themselves in the CCHA. And their rivalry was the type that could headline a national slate of games.
But that was then. This is now.
Earlier this year, on Jan. 20, the Spartans visited Yost Ice Arena for the first time this season in a game that meant little to the national picture. It was a battle of cellar dwellers — a rarity in this rivalry, but reality nonetheless. When the Spartans won, 3-0, there was little to be learned from the game. It was simply two bad teams playing subpar hockey — a far cry from the legendary, cutthroat rivalry the teams were used to engaging in.
But it’s hard for a rivalry to thrive when neither program is.
“It’s always been a matter of one team trying to get the edge on the other team,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson last month. “There were years where Michigan State had our number. And then there were years we had their number. And in recent years we’ve been maybe a little stronger than they’ve been, and so on, but this year they’re trying to get better. I can’t tell you they’re having a good year, but we’re not as good as we were last year.”
With the Wolverines ravaged by NHL departures and the Spartans still trying to find their form under coach Tom Anastos, both programs had what could be generously called down years in 2016-17. Even while Michigan seemed to find a workable style late in the season, Michigan and Michigan State enter this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament as the No. 5 and No. 6 seeds, respectively — out of just six teams.
In its final year, Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena — home to so many epic games between the programs in years past — will host the Big Ten Tournament, and neither the Wolverines nor Spartans will be favored to make a run. That the two programs once among the conference’s headliners have virtually no chance to meet in the tournament comes as both a surprise and, surely, a disappointment.
But the simple fact is that neither team can afford to be sweating too much over the state of the rivalry when there is so much they have to focus on in their own locker rooms.
Coming off a home loss to the Spartans on Feb. 11 — clinching a road sweep for Michigan State at Yost this season — Berenson confessed that only a handful of his teams have been as far behind where he wanted them at that point in the season.
But his players said the state of their season hadn’t diminished the rivalry for them.
“I think it doesn’t change the rivalry itself,” said Michigan forward Cutler Martin, who grew up in East Lansing. “I think the country views us a lot differently, obviously, but I think when we play State, any game, Ohio State, a big rivalry like that, it’s a game that we get up for and we want to play — no matter if we’re having a fantastic year or a bad game.”
Added defenseman Nik Boka: “It’s been a tough year for both teams, but I think we still have that gut feeling of, we want to beat each other.”
Still, even while the meaning of the rivalry may not be diminished to those on the ice, there is undoubtedly an impact on its importance to fans. In a year like this, a win over a rival can serve as a consolation. But Michigan-Michigan State is not used to being a battle for a consolation prize.
The games have spanned numerous Great Lakes Invitational and CCHA clashes. They have produced NHL players and national champions. They divide households across the state.
This year, a fan could have been forgiven for forgetting the teams were even playing.
But while the down year may minimize the tension surrounding the rivalry — and, this week, minimize the likelihood of a high-stakes, postseason contest — Berenson said it still carries great importance.
“There’s bragging rights when we play them,” Berenson said. “…It’s been a rivalry that will continue in all our sports, not just hockey, and I don’t like it any more than anyone else when we lose to them. It’s the worst loss of the year, as far as I’m concerned.”
Perhaps that’s what Berenson meant when he answered the lingering question surrounding all of this. Does the character of a rivalry change when both teams are down?
“It does,” he said, “until you get on the ice.”