Only a few minutes journey down John Nolen Drive lies the Alliant Energy Center. Tucked away into a hill between the Coliseum and an unmarked rink, the unassuming gray building sinks into the ground.
Near the doors, a few telltale mopeds are parked rain, snow or shine. Inside, photos line the main hallway with notable moments throughout program history and team photos grace the corner of the ramp.
A short walk down a dark hallway and up some stairs is a large rink guarded by old boards that look like they could fall over at the slightest touch. Red banners hang around the rink with players’ numbers and championship years.
It’s humble and hidden: Welcome to the Bob Johnson Hockey Facility.
“This little rink here has served its purpose well,” head coach Mike Eaves said. “We did it up as good as we could. We were very creative in it and it was a good home. It was bright. We put up our banners, we had our individual pictures, the ice itself was good. But it’s off campus.”
With no permanent practice facility on campus — yet — the Wisconsin men’s hockey team practices out at the Bob Johnson Hockey Facility more often than not. When the Kohl Center ice is covered in basketball hardwood and the Shell is too small of a rink for that specific week, the Badgers voyage out to their isolated hockey island.
Despite being so far removed from campus, Eaves enjoys the disconnect that exists between the practice facility and campus.
“Once you’re out here, it’s just all hockey,” Eaves said. “You’re kind of isolated and it’s kind of nice … that’s probably the biggest part about being out here; once you’re here it’s just all hockey. But I’ll let that go very quickly because of the fact that we’ll have everything under one roof.”
Before the Kohl Center was even a brain neuron, Eaves himself saw many days at the Coliseum as a Badger between 1974-78.
The Coliseum was essentially the birthplace of Wisconsin hockey. The sport was resurrected in the 1963-64 season as an independent team under John Riley — and called Hartmeyer Ice Arena home. But in the 1966-67 season, under Wisconsin coaching legend Bob Johnson, the Badgers moved to the Coliseum. They officially became a member of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. Three years later, UW would win its first NCAA championship.
“The Coliseum was the Kohl Center of its day,” Eaves said. “It was the rink of its time. There wasn’t any other place that was as big or as nice. I think the Kohl Center is the new Coliseum, if you will, of this era.”
But the history that took place on that unimposing plot of land can simply be traced back to the very name that graces the main hallway of the building.
Johnson brought Wisconsin’s hockey program up from nothing and turned it into a historic being that has six National Titles to its name along with 24 NCAA tournament appearances; 12 in which UW made it to the Frozen Four.
Johnson certainly didn’t do all that in his 15 years, but he set a precedent that has continued through Jeff Sauer’s 20 seasons at the head of the program and now Eaves’ 10.
“The Coliseum, it’s unbelievable,” sophomore forward Keegan Meuer said. “Everybody played there. … I’ve been going there since I was born. … So many great players. Basically, when people think Wisconsin hockey, they think of the Coliseum; this is where it all started.”
But while it’s been the Badgers’ home for decades, some players are ready to let it go.
“My immediate reaction is ‘no,’” junior forward Ryan Little said when asked if he was going to miss their home away from home. “I mean, I had class ‘til 2:15; you have to get out here, it’s a rush. Sometimes you have to scoot out here in the winter. It’s not a bad place — we have a nice locker room here, a nice facility — but I don’t think I’m going to miss it.”
After this week, the Badgers will vacate the Bob Johnson Hockey Facility and finish the season at other various locations. But next season they look forward to a fresh, state-of-the-art practice rink on campus in LaBahn Arena.
Although still under construction, the Badgers are anxiously anticipating the chance to finally enter their new locker room at LaBahn and have everything conveniently located in one place.
“We’ve only been down there in the locker room for hard hat tours,” Eaves said. “We’ve seen it three, four times now — just going from metal studs to drywall that’s been painted, the space how it looks and feels — it’s going to be dynamite. … To be able to go down the hallway and have that practice facility at our fingertips is phenomenal.”
“I think it’s great strides, for recruiting purposes and … to not be constantly moving around, to kind of have a stable home,” junior defenseman John Ramage said. “Looking forward to next year, we’re going to be able to bring in some big recruits and it’ll be probably the best place to play college hockey.”
But with all its faults and merits, Meuer is going to miss the trek out to what he’s always known as his “home” rink.
“Obviously you can complain about the little inconvenience about scooting out here and transporting the gear back and forth, but the staff, they’ve always done a great job and made it as easy as possible for us,” Meuer said. “This place is special. You think of everybody that’s gone through here. They all did the same thing you did.
“This is home. When you think of all the guys that went through here, this is where they’ll tell you that they spent most of their time. This is definitely home for generations of Badgers and it’ll be a sad day to see it end.”