December traditions in seasonal conditions

DETROIT – There is a fun paradox encircling the 2013 version of the Great Lakes Invitational hockey tournament this season.

With the games set on an outdoor sheet in Comerica Park -Tech being the latest to jump on the raging new trend – the hoopla surrounding the event has kicked up a notch or three. The crowds will be bigger. The spectacle grander. The stakes higher.

There are more photos and videos then ever before for fans to enjoy. And of course, Twitter (@michaelbleach) will be there to capture every thought or feeling – some of them more insightful than others – today and Saturday.

Heck, even the hotel the Husky hockey team and employees in charge of the tournament stay at, in the Renaissance Center, a sprawling convention body in the heart of downtown Detroit, screams modern and massive.

And it is in the midst of all this, that college kids from Tech, Michigan, Michigan State and Western Michigan are being brought back to some of their first memories ever of hockey.

“You know, it’s funny, because there is definitely a level of purity to it,” Tech coach Mel Pearson said after Tech’s first practice on the outdoor ice Thursday morning. “Just playing under the weather with the open sky. There was even a few snowflakes falling this morning. It really does take you back to when you were a kid.”

“Everybody just got the chills walking in from the dugout,” Tech sophomore Alex Petan added.

Pond hockey is how many of these players fell in love with the game, and the GLI presents one more chance to indulge in that memory.

Sure the circumstances are (drastically) different. But there is still a feeling of wind on the face. Still a natural chill in the air.

Still a chance to get lost in the sky.

Husky captain Brad Stebner, a native of Fort McMurray, Alta., immediately recalled skating with his ‘buddies’ after school most days on outdoor rinks.

“We called them ODRs,” Stebner said. “There were a lot of them by us growing up. That is basically where I spent all my weekends and afternoons after school, just getting out and playing with my buddies. It really takes you back as a kid, learning to love the game.”

As an assistant coach at Michigan, Pearson was involved with three outdoor games, including the 2001 “Cold War” at Spartan Stadium vs. Michigan State that sparked the phenomenon, and the 2010 “Big Chill at the Big House” in front of a world record 113,411 fans, giving him a bit of perspective for the whole event.

The rush hasn’t worn off.

“It is something special. I don’t care how many times you have been around, there is no question, it is special. Big time,” Pearson said. “It takes you back to the root of the game, way back when I was a kid even. There is a purity to hockey outside.

“Just soak it in.”

Even before the crowds have filled in, the atmosphere of Comerica itself had the Tech team buzzing Thursday.

With the privilege of the hosts, the Huskies are suiting up in the Detroit Tigers locker room – pleasing the eight Michigan natives on the roster – while the path to the rink goes straight through the home dugout.

Pearson said his team looked “a little overwhelmed” just stepping outside.

“It is going to be a great memory,” Stebner said. “The whole venue just gets you pumped.”

For the games themselves, the difficulties concerning outdoor ice reinforce the fundamentals for Tech.

Pearson’s experience has taught him it will be the simple plays done best that win games this weekend.

“It is hard to catch a pass when it is bouncing,” Pearson said. “That’s what we were preaching (Thursday). If you have a shot, you have to take it. Don’t make an unnecessary pass. Just make the simple play over and over.”

“We are defending champs,” Petan added. “We don’t want to let that go, especially this year.”