Ohio State hockey: OSU Ice Rink called upon one last time

In the last year of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, Ohio State will fittingly play the weekend's game at their old barn, the OSU Ice Rink, as the four seed Buckeyes welcomes Ferris State in CCHA quarterfinal action.

In an age where multi-million dollar college facilities sparkle and glisten, university after university being home to pristine shrines to athletics, its time has long passed. Ugly, undersized, a nightmare in maintenance, the OSU Ice Rink is the runt of the family that is Ohio State athletic facilities.

But for one final time, the rink will play host Central Collegiate Hockey Association playoff action when Ohio State welcomes Ferris State in best-of-three CCHA Quarterfinal action this weekend. And when the puck drops on the Buckeyes and Bulldogs, the OSU Ice Rink serving as host is fitting.

I know all too well of warts the ice rink presents. Over the last six years, when not writing, in class or taking in a baseball game, I'm often at the ice rink working. The post-game smell of the locker room as equipment dangles from stalls will forever be entrenched in my mind. The sound of the compressor units that control the cooling and temperature of the rink floor I'm pretty sure I hear in my sleep. After thousands of hours cleaning, sharpening skates, skating, taking in hockey games and practice, if I have a second home, it is the ice rink.

Which is why I know it is the perfect host for this weekend's series.

This postseason is the final in the 32-year existence of the CCHA. With Penn State sponsoring its first season of varsity hockey, next year the Nittany Lions will join the Ohio State, CCHA peers Michigan and Michigan State, and Minnesota and Wisconsin of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association to form the Big Ten's hockey conference. In March 2011, six months after Penn State announced it would make men's hockey a varsity sport, the Big Ten announced it would establish hockey as a sponsored sport, the conference now having its six needed members for a conference recognized by the sport.

With Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State leaving the CCHA, the departure of two long-time powers in the Badgers and Gophers from the WCHA, men's Division I hockey has seen a reshuffling of conference realignment that rivals those spurred by football. The remaining eight CCHA programs will be scatter to three other conferences, five heading to the WCHA, two to the newly constructed National Collegiate Hockey Conference and Notre Dame to the Hockey East Conference. For many throughout collegiate hockey, these next few weekends mark the end of an era.

Prior to the 1998 construction of the Schottenstein Center, the OSU Ice Rink was the home to Ohio State's men hockey program. Currently the 1,000 seat rink, which is adjacent to St. John Arena, is the home to the women's hockey program. It also serves as the men's practice rink when due to basketball, concerts, or other extenuating circumstances, the ice is not available at the Schottenstein Center. For a women's program that has has attendance range between 300-600 fans, the rink is sizeable.

For a men's program? Hardly.

In 14 contests, Ohio State averaged a home attendance of 4735, with a high of 9278 in the home finale, Feb. 23 against Michigan. Four thousand fans will not fit into the rink. In fact, with assigned seating opposed to the general and free admission seating of the women games, the maximum capacity for games this weekend will be a hair under 900.

Imagine playing in front of one-tenth the audience of your last home game, less than one-sixth of the fanbase that has supported you all season. Would you be thrilled?

But even when Ohio State draws 9000 fans against Michigan, the Schott is half-full. Ohio State's next three-highest attended games, two against Miami, the penultimate home contest against Michigan, were dates against rivals that drew less than seven thousand, leaving nearly two-thirds of the Schott empty. There are times when the home to Ohio State's basketball teams can be loud in support of the men's program and it is never bad to play in front of four-digit crowds.

But the OSU Ice Rink brings something the Schott cannot.

Ohio State has played three CCHA series at the OSU Ice Rink since 2007 – falling to Lake Superior State in 2007, defeating Bowling Green in 2009, and taking down Notre Dame in 2010. In each one of those serie,s there was life breathed into the old barn. With packed stands, in front of hundreds of their closest and most loyal supporters, Ohio State experienced a true home ice advantage.

Sure the dimensions of the rink force Ohio State teams to have their home locker room in St. John Arena, forced to walk through the lobby, through the breeze way into a second facility. But when the Buckeyes make that walk, they walk into a screaming frenzy, taking to the ice in a setting the Schottenstein Center cannot touch.

The Schottenstein Center is a great facility. In their home rink, Ohio State has everything they can possibly need at their disposal. But it lacks character; its cosmetic glow undermines a certain grit, togetherness and workman feel that most befits the intensity, physicality and grind of the sport of hockey.

Ohio State is in its third year under coach Mark Osiecki. Prior an assistant at Wisconsin, Osiecki knows what it takes to build a top program. He too knows what it is like to have commitment and unrivaled support placed into hockey by an athletic department. There have long been plans for a new rink to emerge on campus, but year after year those plans are put to the back page, another project taking precedence, funding not available.

Osiecki cannot control where his teams play. But with what he can control, recruiting, development, and game management, he has the Buckeyes on the right track. Ohio State is forced to play at the ice rink due to their own success: a fourth-place finish in the CCHA with a 13-10-5 conference mark provided Ohio State with a first-round bye, home ice in the quarterfinal round, which is being played while the Schottenstein Center host the Ohio High School Athletic Association girls basketball state championships.

After finishing ninth in the 11-team conference in 2010-11, there would be no greater testament to the work that Osiecki has done than for Ohio State to be among the four teams to take the ice next weekend in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena competing for the CCHA Championship. Ohio State last advanced to the CCHA semifinals in 2005, a year after claiming only its second CCHA Tournament Championship (the other 1972).

The Big Ten will have a neutral ice tournament when the conference begins play next season, taking away any scheduling conflict for Ohio State in the opportunity to play a playoff hockey at home. Fans of Ohio State athletics will see their hockey team take on rivals that they know from the gridiron, basketball court and diamond, not having to wonder where Northern Michigan, Ferris State and Lake Superior are located. Big Ten hockey will be fun and provide Ohio State another opportunity to show they are the best athletic program in the conference, top to bottom.

But before then, the Buckeyes will say goodbye to the CCHA. And there is no better way to end an era, than with a championship – and turning out the lights at the OSU Ice Rink for good.

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