DETROIT — Like any good rivalry, this is one built on success, respect and a yearly competitive balance.
“It’s not like dog-eat-dog,” Andy Weidenbach said with a laugh. “It’s spirited, but were not out for blood.”
But they were outdoors, which put a whole new spin on things between the Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingswood and Birmingham Brother Rice hockey teams.
“This was pretty cool,” Weidenbach, the Cranbrook coach, said after his team beat Rice 4-3 in a Dec. 19 afternoon battle at Comerica Park in a Michigan Interscholastic Hockey League showdown.
“Just fantastic,” Rice coach Lou Schmidt Jr. said. “Who knows if you ever get a chance to do something like this again.”
It’s not likely, which is why making the most of this was so important.
The MIHL website had an official countdown clock going.
Both coaches spoke the week before the game, saying how they knew they’d be part of something historic.
It’s not every year Comerica Park is transformed to a hockey haven.
But this year, in preparation for the Hockeytown Winter Festival and as a teaser for the 2014 NHL Winter Classic, it was.
And here, literally in center field, were two of the state’s premiere programs taking center stage.
“It was awesome, one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” said Rice forward Blake Bazzi. “This was something to always remember.”
Bazzi beamed as he spoke, and he was on the team that lost.
“You’re so focused on the game, but you can’t help but take in the atmosphere,” said Cranbrook forward Austin Alger. “It was an intense game, but guys were loose on the bench. We were going to enjoy this.”
Noah Gilreath started the scoring for the Cranes, grabbing a 1-0 lead less than four minutes into the first period.
An early goal in the opening minutes of the second by Rice’s Nick Bowman tied the game momentarily, but C-K stuck right back — twice.
CJ Regula gave the Cranes a 2-1 lead with 9:24 remaining in the second, and then Alger made it 3-1 with 4:29 to play in the frame.
Rice closed the gap to 3-2 early in the third when Brendan Pyc scored 1:56 into the period, but a wrist shot from the left wing by Sam Miletic put Cranbrook up by two again with 7:53 remaining, and it seemed to deflate any comeback hopes for Rice.
“That was big for us,” Weidenbach said of the two-goal leads. “Against a good team, to have that cushion makes things just a little easier. But when they pulled their goalie, we knew anything could happen.”
Rice climbed within one when Nick Rosa scored with 24 seconds remaining in regulation, but the Warriors never seriously threatened again.
“This was two good teams that I thought played a pretty good game,” Schmidt said. “The difference was our mistakes. We made a few too many of them, and Cranbrook is so skilled that when you do that, they pounce on them. … Falling behind by two goals twice was really tough. Especially the fourth goal; that’s one we’d like to have back.”
Rice out-shot C-K 27-23, but Austin Movinski was up to the task, finishing with 24 saves while running his record to 4-0-0 on the year.
Cranbrook was 10-0-0 at press time.
The defending Division 3 champs have now won 21 straight games dating back to last year.
“You know, we’ve heard they’re the best team in the state,” Schmidt said. His guys fell to 4-3-0. “They sure are good.”
But truth be told, winning and losing wasn’t the focus — at least not for this day.
Asked if anyone would remember the final score a few years from now, players and coaches alike shrugged their answer away with a smile.
“The backdrop of the city behind us, to be on the field at Comerica Park,” Weidenbach began, “it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.”