Coaches often warn players to avoid thinking too far ahead and focus strictly on the task at hand. While these words serve as sage advice, human nature takes over as college players can find themselves sitting in class dreaming about the opportunity to play in a major city in front of thousands of raucous fans.
For college hockey players in the Big Ten conference, they typically circle the final Saturday in January at Madison Square Garden as their most anticipated game on the regular season calendar. B1G Super Saturday, an event devised by commissioner Jim Delany affords the chance for prominent college programs to showcase their abilities for a wider audience while growing the conference brand in both basketball and hockey.
“It’s up there with one of my favorite games,” Michigan winger Will Lockwood said regarding Super Saturday. “It’s a great opportunity to play in one of the best venues in sports. I’m going to take a lot out of playing in this place. The atmosphere, the history, and the buildup made it fun. We marked it on our calendars, and everybody was looking forward to it. It was my first time playing in that arena, and it was a great experience.”
Since its debut in 2016, B1G Super Saturday served as a platform for future NHL stars to get a glimpse of the experience they will face when playing at the professional level. At the same time, they remain grounded in the college game, where they continue furthering their skills and elevating team performance.
“Madison Square Garden is as big as it gets,” Penn State goaltender Peyton Jones said. “But there’s ice, and there are two teams and when the puck drops we play hockey. I take it all in, and I see all the people there, but once the puck drops, it doesn’t really matter where you are playing. You have to do everything to win the game.”
In the case of former Michigan forward Boo Nieves, playing on the Garden ice was an unofficial prelude to his pro career with the New York Rangers after partaking in the inaugural Big Ten Super Saturday. Other NHL alumni to participate in the event include Nieves’s Rangers’ teammate Ryan Lindgren and Buffalo Sabres forward Casey Mittelstadt.
Participants in the first Super Saturday matchup in 2016 Michigan and Penn State reconvened in the fourth annual edition of the event on Saturday with the Nittany Lions coming out on top in a convincing 5-2 win despite facing a shot disadvantage of 22-8 after 20 minutes of play.
“I don’t think we started out great, but we finished the chances we got, and we found our game,” Penn State head coach Guy Gadowsky said. “For some reason, we didn’t have it at the start but give Michigan credit. They came out hard. Our goaltender Peyton Jones made some huge saves, and we gained confidence in the second and third periods after taking advantage of our chances.”
Penn State built a sizable lead by exploiting Michigan’s tendency of hitting the crossbar and capitalized on first period goals from Evan Barratt, Liam Folkes, and Alec Marsh. Breakaway goals and odd-man rushes off turnovers in the offensive zone fortified Penn State’s effort and dictated pace while building confidence for Jones in goal.
“I thought we capitalized on our chances, Barratt said. “In the first period, we were lucky to capitalize on our chances. We have struggled scoring goals recently, so anyway we can help our goalie battle helps us in a game. Getting three goals in the first period was nice to help him boost his confidence and have him feeling good in the crease.”
Teams such as Penn State can look at an experience like playing at Madison Square Garden as inspiration for the potential they believe their team possesses and succeed freed from the pressure and rigors of playing near campus. Additionally, they can ensure their effort endures through the remainder of the season as the schedule intensifies.
“There’s going to be more important games whether we won or lost, but this game was important especially against a program like Michigan at Madison Square Garden,” Gadowsky said. “I think playing there adds to our confidence. I don’t if it should, but it does. We should feel that way wherever we play. Any time you play in this atmosphere, it can benefit you. It was a great experience on its own, but it can benefit come April.”
Although hockey is always the main priority, the players and coaches decide to make time to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of New York City and visit various tourist attractions, including Times Square and the Statue of Liberty. The experiences off the ice create lasting memories for the players in unfamiliar surroundings away from campus. Win or lose, B1G Super Saturday is a successful and enduring event on the conference calendar for all participants that get the rare chance to compete.
“We were thankful and fortunate to get the freedom to enjoy the city, and we took advantage of it, and it was great to see and partake,” Michigan center Luke Morgan said.
“Walking around Times Square was really cool,” Lockwood said. “The whole experience of walking around the big city was really cool this week and a great experience.”