DETROIT – For the last decade, Cadillac coach Scott Graham has made the Thanksgiving Eve drive through a 40-mile winding course of rural farm and forest lands to Big Rapids for what has become one of the biggest games on the Vikings’ calendar each year.
The annual holiday game against these neighboring communities has become known as the 131 Cup Challenge, signifying the stretch of U.S. Highway that connects these two northern Michigan towns and their nearly equal populations of 10,000.
“It’s one of those rivalries where the communities have become so involved, so attached to the games that we play, and the kids all know each other and many of the parents and the community members,” Graham said. “So every time that Cadillac and Big Rapids get together it’s a big intense rivalry.”
The series takes on a new look Wednesday when the Vikings (3-5-0) host Big Rapids at Joe Louis Arena in what is being billed as High School Hockey at The Joe, a two-day event, featuring four high school games.
The Cadillac-Big Rapids contest at 3:30 p.m. is the first of three games scheduled for Wednesday. The other games at JLA are: Oxford vs. Lake Orion at 6 p.m., followed by Detroit Country Day vs. Utica Eisenhower at 8:30 p.m.
The final game of the two-day event will take place Friday when the top-ranked team in Division 2, Livonia Stevenson, takes on South Lyon at 7 p.m.
The high school games were originally scheduled for Comerica Park on Dec. 18 as part of the Winter Festival in downtown Detroit. But the cancellation of the festival and the NHL’s Winter Classic on New Year’s Day in Ann Arbor pushed the high school games indoors.
As part of a promotion meant to create buzz surrounding this week’s prep games at The Joe, the Red Wings conducted an online poll with the winning team receiving special media coverage from the team’s Integrated Media department, featuring game highlights, analysis and interviews. Cadillac came out on top with more than 59 percent of the 227,000 votes casted.
Last month, the 131 Cup was returned to Cadillac when senior forwards Daniel Gischia and Tyler Thomas, and junior defenseman Patrick Briggs each scored in a 3-1 victory over the Cardinals at Ferris State University.
The Vikings have won five of the previous nine season-series against Big Rapids. However, Graham prefers to use a Michigan-Michigan State analogy when summing up Wednesday’s contest.
“Whenever they play you can have one team ranked No. 1 and the other ranked at 100, and it doesn’t matter because it’s too unpredictable to really get a feel,” he said. “For us, you just prepare your team emotionally and strategically and try to keep things into perspective.”
Though the 0-8-1 Cardinals enter Wednesday game seeking their first win of the season, Graham won’t allow his team to get tangled in complacency against a resolute opponent coached by Tim Blashill, the younger brother of Grand Rapids Griffins coach Jeff Blashill.
“You can never predict what the outcome will be between these two schools because the kids play hard and the kids really bring it on both sides,” said Graham, the only coach to lead the Vikings’ 16-year-old hockey program. “We know that they are a different team than they were a month ago, and the players that they had out of the lineup then will certainly contribute to that.”
Despite their slow start, the Vikings have found some fluidity lately behind the steady efforts of senior goalie P.J. Nemish, who has compiled a 2-4-0 record with a 2.50 goals-against average.
“I think we strive, as everybody else does, to create and develop as much balance as we possibly can, and right now I think for us we’ve been getting real good goaltending out of P.J., who has been real consistent,” Graham said. “Defensively, we’ve been playing real well and finding ways to clear the zone and to capitalize on our scoring opportunities, but that has to continue to get better.”
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