Fifty years ago, the Badgers played their first season in the modern era of Wisconsin men’s hockey. But in the very season they’re celebrating that landmark, they have yet to skate in front of their home crowd – until now.
This weekend, Wisconsin (1-2-1, 1-0-1 WCHA) finally returns home to a welcome befitting of 50 years. Before the Badgers face off with Colorado College (3-3-0, 0-0-0) Friday night, the Kohl Center ice sheet will be dedicated to former Wisconsin hockey coach, the late “Badger” Bob Johnson.
The iconic coach, who spent 15 seasons with Wisconsin from 1966 until 1982, left for a chance to coach in the NHL only after he built the program into one of the most successful in the nation with its first three NCAA titles in 1973, 1977 and 1981.
Head coach Mike Eaves, who was captain of the 1977 national championship team, knew Johnson through his NHL days as well. The rink dedication this weekend has allowed Eaves a chance to reflect on his own experiences with his former coach.
“It’s allowed me to walk down memory lane in three different factions, if you will,” Eaves said. “One as a college hockey player, two as a professional hockey player and three as a retired hockey player starting out in the coaching business. So I got the three different veins in the three different time periods of my life and I got to appreciate all three and it’s been really fun to do that.”
Eaves admitted in his Monday press conference he didn’t fully appreciate everything he learned from Johnson until much later in his professional career. But now as a coach, he has realized one of the greatest things he learned from Johnson was the need to look at the positives and simply enjoy what you do.
“Some days its not so easy to do that, but you have to find that thing and say ‘You know what, I’m going to make this day good. I’m going to make it count, no matter what the situation,’” Eaves said.
Friday night, Johnson’s 5-year-old grandchild Brodie McConnell is expected to drop the ceremonial first puck. Originally, his wife, Martha, was going to do the honors, but due to recent poor health, she decided she couldn’t.
But regardless of all the ceremony, what Johnson did for Wisconsin isn’t lost on the current Badgers.
“Obviously there’s a lot of history and tradition with that, with the amazing job he did here. That’s carried over to this,” junior forward Mark Zengerle said. “That’s why this place is such a prestigious place and program. He started all that. … That’s pretty cool.”
After the puck is dropped and the ceremonies are over, Wisconsin will look to avenge some recent embarrassment against Colorado College. Last season, the Badgers and the Tigers only met for two games in Colorado Springs, Colo. While UW’s offense stumbled, CC managed eight goals on the weekend, sweeping the Badgers by scores of 4-2 and 4-1.
Only a year before that, the Tigers knocked the Badgers out of the postseason by winning the final two games of a best-of-three series, once again, in Colorado Springs.
While the 2012-13 squads are starkly different on both sides of the ice, the Badgers haven’t forgotten about their recent history with the Tigers.
“It leaves a bitter taste in your mouth,” senior defenseman John Ramage said. “Whenever you get beat by a team multiple times for consecutive years, you really don’t want it to happen again. This year we’re really looking forward to playing them and give them our best hockey.”
Colorado College has found a substantial amount of success against Wisconsin, even before its more recent success. Since Eaves took over, CC boasts an 18-9-4 record against UW, with a 6-4-4 record at the Kohl Center.
But the Badgers may be catching the Tigers at just the right time. The Tigers are currently in the middle of a three-game losing streak and have struggled to create any offense, with only three goals during that streak.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, is coming off a big three-point road series in Duluth, Minn., where it earned its first win and shutout of the season Friday night, followed by a come-from-behind effort Saturday to earn a tie.
While the Badgers expect the Tigers to come out with an extra edge looking for a win, they are concentrating on staying consistent and building upon what they did last weekend.
“That’s something we talked about a little bit last weekend, but even this weekend, just consistency is all aspects of our game,” Ramage said. “With doing that will come more goal scoring and open up the game a lot more for us.”