Arena quirks just another challenge as Gophers women visit WCHA-leading Ohio State
While central Ohio is a nice enough place to visit, few from outside the Buckeyes' rabid fan base look forward to stepping inside OSU Ice Rink, one of the smallest and oldest facilities in college hockey.
MINNEAPOLIS — Much like the idea of Illinois adding a Big Ten hockey program, or Northern Michigan offering that state’s first Division I women’s hockey program or the completion of the Southwest Light Rail line in the Twin Cities, the notion of a new hockey-specific facility for the men and women at Ohio State has been talked about for a long time, with no real action.
But this weekend when the Minnesota Gophers women’s team visits the Buckeyes for a series that may go a long way to determining the eventual WCHA champions – and for the foreseeable future – they will play at OSU Ice Rink, a smaller, on-campus facility that opened in the early days of the Kennedy administration.
Similar to many high school rinks of its era in Minnesota, the facility is compact. It has a low ceiling. It has seating on just one side. It has a small press box hanging over the benches. It has metal walls and a metal roof, meaning that sound reverberates. And it has few fans among the other WCHA teams and coaches that come to visit.
“You’re kind of down in the dungeon. That’s what we call the locker rooms there,” said Minnesota State Mankato forward Kelsey King, noting that the visitors’ dressing room is in the basement, meaning a walk up stairs on skates is required to face the Buckeyes. “I will give them credit, it looks like there’s a lot of fans in there because it’s smaller.”
All of those factors, and the fact that the Buckeyes are 11-1-0 at home this season as they contend for the WCHA title, give additional meaning to the Gophers’ trip to Ohio State this weekend.
“It’s a really tight rink. It’s like a community rink here in Minnesota,” Gophers coach Brad Frost said. “They love it. It’s a great home ice advantage…the roof is right there, lightbulbs get broken on deflected shots. Ten years ago when we played in there, there were birds flying around. I think they cleaned up the bird problem. And they get people in there, and their band. It’s a tough place to play.”
While both Buckeyes’ men’s coach Steve Rohlik and women’s coach Nadine Muzzerall have made it clear that they would prefer the much-discussed hockey-only facility that is still just an idea, the Buckeyes women have embraced all of those quirks, and use them to their advantage.
“Of course the benefit of being at home is your fans. Last weekend we did a great job. We had the band here in a whole entire section, and having the best band in the land definitely helps you,” Muzzerall said, after her team split a series with Minnesota Duluth in Columbus. “We had a student section behind the goalie raising hell and taunting and having fun with it, which was great. Good momentum when you hear that from your fans. But either way our team is internally driven and not externally driven.”
Even the home team is not immune from their rink’s quirks. The Buckeyes don’t actually dress for games there. The home locker room is next door in St. John Arena, the legendary former home of Buckeyes basketball. Muzzerall’s team, in uniform, walks outdoors the roughly 20 yards from the court to the rink, under a covered walkway, and through the arena lobby to get to the ice.
Muzzerall, a former Gophers player and assistant coach, has done the heavy lifting in recruiting top players to central Ohio, and naturally the fans have followed to the facility which officially holds 1,400 for hockey. With an 18-4-0 overall mark, which includes a season-opening sweep of the Gophers in Minneapolis, the Buckeyes are ranked second in the country, are leading the WCHA and are looking hard at their third Frozen Four trip since 2018. On a campus with a whopping 36 varsity sports (by comparison, Minnesota has 22) where football is king, it would be easy for women’s hockey to get lost in the shuffle, but that is not happening at Ohio State.
Clearly, quirks and all, the current setup is working for the Buckeyes and their fans, even if it is rare for visitors to relish a trip to Columbus.