For the Wisconsin men’s hockey team, it’s quickly becoming do-or-die time.
Once upon a time, Wisconsin hockey was the best in the business. As of 2006, it had won six national championships since 1973. It also made an appearance in the 2010 title game.
That last run to the championship game in the 2009-2010 season would result in some of the biggest crowds to ever grace Madison, including one game played at Camp Randall that would bring out a school-record 55,031 fans against then-No. 19 Michigan.
As recent as a year ago, Wisconsin and the NHL seemed to go hand in hand, too.
Twenty-two Wisconsin alums skated in the NHL just a season ago in 2011-12 — the second highest total among college hockey programs — while 11 Wisconsin alums skated in the 2010-11 NHL Playoffs — the highest total of any school.
Now fast-forward to 2012.
After a subpar season last year by Wisconsin standards, finishing 17-18-2 and exiting in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, the UW hockey team came into this year with renewed expectations.
Entering the season No. 15 in the preseason collegiate hockey poll by USA Today and USA Hockey Magazine, Wisconsin — in a matter of weeks — quickly erased that ranking and replaced it with an abysmal 1-7-2 record.
With the unexpected losses of freshman phenom Nic Kerdiles and junior forward Mark Zengerle — last year’s leading scorer for UW — for the first part of the season, it might have been unfair to expect too much from a talented but still fairly young team.
Then, after the resignation of assistant coach Bill Butters on Nov. 7 for personal reasons, it seemed yet another nail had been pounded into Wisconsin’s coffin.
The once full-to-bursting Kohl Center is experiencing lower attendance numbers so far this season. The Crease Creatures — who once had to wait in a line outside to even get a seat to see hockey’s future stars grace the ice in 2010 — continue to shrink in number with each successive home sweep.
Still, it is not my intention to draw attention to the 2012 Badgers troubles to spur on a quest for head coach Mike Eaves’ head. In fact, I’m thinking quite the opposite.
Fans would be wise to remember this is still the man who led UW all the way to the national championship just two seasons ago and helped it win the national title in 2006. The least any UW hockey fan can give Eaves is more time to right the ship.
Instead, I bring attention to the situation out of concern for the storied program’s future.
Certainly, no one player or coach is to blame for the Badger’s stumbles early this season, but finding a scapegoat for the blame is irrelevant.
Simply put, UW can ill afford to continue to have another mediocre year like it did last season.
In the college sports recruiting process, fortunes can change quickly. In the course of a few seasons, a program can emerge from the ashes to stardom — think No. 1 Indiana in men’s basketball — or fall to the depths of despair.
While UW’s hockey lull may only be entering its second season, it puts the Badgers in a precarious position already for a program that can be considered the hockey equivalent of basketball programs at Duke or North Carolina.
Since collegiate sports teams are unable to pay (at the moment, that is) to land the best talent in the land, the name and brand of a program are the only bartering chips that matter for a prospective recruit looking at his options as he enters the college sports world.
On Wednesday, Eaves announced three recruits set to join Wisconsin’s squad beginning in the fall of 2013. At least so far, the impressive résumés that have become customary of a UW hockey recruiting class haven’t completely disappeared, but that may not last for long, as players move on to programs that can promise a Frozen Four appearance, or better yet a national championship, on an annual basis.
Right now, the Badgers can’t promise either.
And so, the remaining three months in the college hockey season have become more important than ever.
As key players return from injuries and suspensions and the squad familiarizes itself with a new assistant coach, the Badgers’ response to their early string of bad luck will set the tone for the rest of their WCHA season.
While it seems unlikely Wisconsin will be vying for a national championship in April, a rebound heading into December, January, February and on could prove crucial for the Badgers’ prospects beyond the parameters of the 2012 season.
In a postgame interview, Eaves equated turning the season around to the slow process of trying to turn a “freightliner” in the water. Put into simple terms: It takes time.
Unfortunately for Wisconsin, with each successive defeat over the last few weeks, time is not something it has much of at this point.