CHICAGO - Save for their surroundings, the Gophers felt as if they had been transported back to their boyhood Saturday. They were having such fun playing hockey outdoors that they didn't want to leave the rink built atop the turf of Soldier Field after their one-hour practice for Sunday's Hockey City Classic.
The ice was bumpier than usual, which will force them to keep it simple in their game against WCHA rival Wisconsin. The temperature hovered around 19 degrees, so they wore caps under their helmets, extra gloves and warmer undergarments than usual. But just as they did when they were kids, they barely noticed the chill, as they skated in an empty 61,500-seat stadium.
It's predicted to warm up to 30 degrees Sunday when the No. 2 Gophers play outdoors for the first time in their program's modern era. About 50,000 fans are expected to attend the two-game event, which begins at noon with a game between No. 12 Notre Dame and No. 3 Miami (Ohio).
The main objective for the Gophers in Saturday's practice was to familiarize themselves with the venue, the rink and the weather. That allowed them to get the "wow factor" out of the way and become comfortable with the logistics, so they can concentrate solely on playing the game Sunday.
With two important points at stake in the WCHA race, junior center Erik Haula said they will be all business when the puck drops. Saturday, it was all about having fun and relishing a unique and memorable experience.
"I could have stayed out there all night," Haula said. "The weather is perfect, and it's a great atmosphere. It was a great feeling skating out there.
"This is a dream come true. It's a huge setting, and it's going to be fun, especially since we're playing our rival."
The team brought lots of extra cold-weather gear so players would be prepared for any conditions. Coach Don Lucia wore a stocking cap with a 1970s-style Gophers logo, pulled down tight over his ears on a frosty day.
A few weeks ago, Lucia talked to Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson -- who was on the bench for outdoor games during 23 seasons as an assistant at Michigan -- about how to prepare. The Gophers had tried to schedule an outdoor practice at home but were unable to do so.
Pearson told Lucia that as long as the players got on the ice the day before the game, they would be fine. The 18th-ranked Badgers, who practiced just before the Gophers, brought out a football and tossed it around. The Gophers checked out the heated benches, which are surrounded by plexiglass to protect against the wind, and an ice surface rougher than their usual glassy indoor sheets.
The bumpy ice, Lucia said, means the Gophers must be prepared for crazy bounces. That, in turn, means they will have to keep their strategy simple.
"We have to start the game with the mindset that if you think you're going to make a bunch of pretty plays, it's not going to happen," Lucia said. "It'll have to be a little more chip-and-chase. The first 10 minutes will be absolutely critical to try to get off to a good start and keep our focus."
There will be plenty of distractions, including the cold, the wind and the novelty of playing in an open-air NFL stadium. Haula said he believes the Gophers will lock on the task at hand.
"Our team does a good job of handling the big stages," he said. "We'll make sure everyone is focused on the game and getting those two points."