This weekend, I finally crossed off a glaring problem on my sports fan resume that I feel guilty for delaying so long. I attended a Wisconsin men’s hockey game.
From the McClimon Complex to the Shell to the Kohl Center, I’ve covered quite a variety of sports in my time with the Herald, but never hockey. The strange game played by men on ice skates fighting for a rubber puck seemed so foreign and confusing to me that I relegated it to the category of “sports beyond my realm of knowledge.”
However, after spending several surprisingly exciting hours in the press box over the weekend series, I can honestly say I became a fan of Canada’s national sport. So here’s an attempt to highlight the best parts of Wisconsin hockey, and convince even the most diehard of basketball fans (a group I consider myself a part of) that it’s worth trekking to 601 W. Dayton St. on a chilly February night to cheer on Wisconsin’s most talented skaters.
The action never slows
Perhaps the most surprising and exciting aspect of my first Wisconsin hockey experience was the lightning-fast speed of the game and constant scrums for the puck. In a way incomparable to any other sport, there is never a dull moment on the rink as players on both ends fly like a missile into the boards and chase the puck at breakneck speed.
NHL teams run well-orchestrated offenses with passes that glide precisely from one player’s stick to another’s, but college hockey is a much different game. With passes routinely making it past their intended target and skaters regularly losing control of the puck, there are constant changes of possession that would keep even the most level-headed of sports fans on their feet. Shots are constantly fired at the net, and the goals are as unpredictable as a 20-point night from Ben Brust.
Despite my lack of hockey fandom, I suddenly found myself completely involved in the game, attempting to maintain some level of professionalism and keep quiet as slapshots flew off the goal post and the opposing goalie came up with body-bending saves.
For those who have grown weary of the tiring pace of Bo Ryan’s swing offense on the basketball court, there is likely no better prescription for fast-paced excitement than a Friday night at the Kohl Center.
Rowdy fans welcome
After enjoying a couple games on the Badgers’ home ice, it’s clear that the Kohl Center lives up to its widely acknowledged reputation as one of the most intimidating venues in college hockey.
As the student section transforms from the Grateful Red to the Crease Creatures, the arena fills with students chanting “sieve” as the band plays “On, Wisconsin!,” creating a rambunctious atmosphere. Although basketball games get the Kohl Center bumping, the crowd erupts after big hits and near goals and at times, by my judgment, is louder than when Jordan Taylor & Co. take to the hardwood.
Pounding on the glass and offering a collection of cheers unfamiliar to football and basketball fans, loyal followers of Mike Eaves’ squad love their sport and they make it known.
They are one of the more dedicated fan bases on this campus, and it’s worth attending a game just to take part in the fun to be had in the stands. It may not match the 14,000 students that blanket the Camp Randall student section with cardinal and white on Saturdays in the fall, but what the Crease Creatures lack in number they make up for in volume.
What the hell is icing?
My greatest anxiety heading into the Kohl Center, newly topped with a sheet of ice, was that I simply wouldn’t be able to pick up on the rules and trends of the game. With exotic (perhaps Canadian?) terms like icing and boarding, I was convinced hockey came with a set of convoluted rules unlike any other sport I had previously played or covered.
Yet, after only a period or two of observation, I had a solid understanding of the game and the different strategies for man-down or power play situations. To my delight, icing was actually not that complicated and play often went uninterrupted by penalties and other game stoppages for several minutes.
Simply put, a weekend at the rink left me with the realization that any sports fan could quickly not only understand the sport, but find themselves unexpectedly transformed into an avid Wisconsin hockey fan.
“It’s a great day for hockey”
In a program where football and men’s basketball consume the loyalty of many Badgers fans, the tremendous success and history of the Wisconsin men’s hockey program is often overlooked. With six national titles and nine Frozen Four appearances since 1973 (the college hockey equivalent of the Final Four), hockey is arguably the university’s most successful program.
As the clip that appears on the Kohl Center video board before the game makes clear, and the banners hanging from the rafters reaffirm, Wisconsin has one of the longest and proudest hockey traditions of any school in the country. UW fans still recall the back-to-back Rose Bowls and Final Four appearance of a decade ago with everlasting joy and fondness, but often forget that the hockey team finished as national champions in 2006.
From Bob Johnson (who coined the above phrase) to Eaves, the program holds an overall record of 1106-681-118 and has produced a long list of productive NHL players who all spent time in Madison.
This success was hard to ignore when I realized there were at least double the number of men’s hockey banners as there were for basketball hanging from the Kohl Center’s ceiling.
So maybe, like me, you thought hockey just wasn’t for you, and that you needed to dedicate more time to checking if Bart Houston is still listed as a four-star recruit by Rivals. He’s been downgraded to three stars, in case you’re wondering.
But it’s time to reconsider — it only took me a weekend to change my mind.
Ian is a junior majoring is journalism. What do you think is the best part of Badger hockey? Has this column convinced you to attend a game? Let him know by tweeting @imccue or email [email protected]