Any Badger hockey player will tell you just how exceptional the hockey culture is in the state of Wisconsin.
But that appreciation pales in comparison to the culture in neighborly Minnesota. Aptly nicknamed “The State of Hockey,” the sport permeates all ages throughout the land of 10,000 lakes. From mini mites to high school to the NHL, hockey is simply a part of life.
Unsurprisingly, the Minnesota men’s hockey team boasts 23 natives on its 27-man roster. But somehow Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves has been able to steal Minnesotans for his own squad. Six of this year’s 26 Badgers claim a hometown on the other side of the St. Croix.
But getting a hockey player out of the state of Minnesota isn’t the easiest task. In fact, the first thing Eaves finds out about a Minnesotan recruit is how badly he wants to don the maroon and gold.
“That’s one of the things we try to find out early in the process and ask them to be quite honest with us because when they’re in your state, they’re on your TV all the time, and if you’re a little guy, chances are you want to be that because it’s what you’ve grown up with,” Eaves said. “But sometimes we have kids in Minnesota where their connections [to] Wisconsin somehow, they just happen to live there. You never can tell for sure; you always have to ask the question.”
Between forwards Tyler Barnes, Jason Clark, Joseph LaBate and Tyler Lapic, and defensemen Patrick Daly and Joe Faust, Wisconsin somehow stole their hearts or they simply had no interest in attending Minnesota in the first place.
For Barnes, he always wanted to be a Gopher — at least until he laid eyes on what Madison had to offer.
“Obviously growing up as a little kid, I grew up watching them,” Barnes said. “My dad had season tickets so I’ve been watching them my whole life.
“Visiting (Wisconsin) and seeing the campus and all that it has to offer and the tradition here pretty much had a strong influence on me.”
Unlike his fellow Eagan, Minn., native, LaBate wasn’t ever a die-hard Minnesota fan. In fact, he was a Maine fan for a little while.
“I actually was a fan of the Maine Blackbears when [Minnesota] lost to them in 2002,” the freshman forward said, referring to the national championship game that year. “I really liked [Maine’s] jerseys when I was younger so I never was a huge Gopher fan. I went to some of their games, but it was never my goal to be a Gopher like some kids.”
Faust, a native to Bloomington, Minn., faced a similar experience to Barnes. Once he was on campus, he just couldn’t get past the feeling he had found the right school.
And like LaBate, the Gophers just weren’t the team of his dreams.
“I always watched them and it was exciting when they won the national championships and stuff,” Faust said. “I was kind of a fan, but I never had that calling that some kids talk about, how they always wanted to grow up and be a Gopher. I followed them, but [they were] never really my passion. I just wanted to play college hockey.”
Despite their desires — or lack thereof — of wanting to be a Golden Gopher, the culture of the sport in Minnesota provided each with a unique chance to develop their skills in a state that values the sport as one of the best.
Without missing a beat, Barnes, LaBate and Faust each noted Minnesota’s hockey statehood.
“We call it the ‘State of Hockey,’” Faust said. “Just in general there’s a lot of focus on it because people will always be talking about it and everything. It adds a little pressure coming from Minnesota, but at the same time, it opened a lot of doors. I don’t think I’d be where I am today if it weren’t for the communities and coaches I had growing up.”
Eaves himself got the chance to call Minnesota home for a time playing for the Minnesota North Stars for a total of five years — four of which came consecutively from 1979-83.
Notching 207 games with the North Stars — with 55 goals during that time — Eaves experienced Minnesota’s uncommon love for hockey firsthand — likening it to that of Canada’s.
“[Assistant coach Gary Shuchuk] and I always talk about when we go north of the border and hockey is like football and basketball is down here. I mean, it’s crazy,” Eaves said. “The first three pages of the sports page are all about hockey. The first 10 minutes of a sports show is hockey. Down here, in most of the States, it’s not that way, but in Minnesota … hockey has a more predominate role, if you will, in the state.”
Hitting the road against Minnesota this weekend, the skaters are more stoked than anything to get a stab at their home state, especially Barnes who was a solid fan of his hometown team growing up.
“It’s more exciting having the chance to play against the team I grew up watching,” Barnes said. “To get the chance to go out on that ice again and perform is a great thing.”