While most Badger fans were glued to their TVs this past weekend, I was busy making an eight-hour trek to North Dakota. At least I think that's where I was — driving to the city of Grand Forks, I got the feeling I was driving through Eastern Europe.
I made the drive because I have wanted to make that road trip ever since I began covering the Badger men's hockey team. But more specifically, I wanted to see how Wisconsin fared on the road at the palace that is the Ralph Engelstad Arena.
I was not disappointed in either of these aspects — if the Badgers can play that well on the road against a tough rival team they are going to be scary, and the Ralph, with its gigantic relic organ and wide array of bubble hockey games, is just one moat short of a castle.
But the trip also strengthened my opinion that the Badger hockey faithful are the best college hockey fans in the country.
Prior to the weekend, my only hockey road trips had been to Albany, N.Y., and Grand Rapids, Mich., for the NCAA tournaments the past two years. It was the national tournament, of course fans were going to be there.
But I didn't know what to expect at North Dakota, so I didn't really anticipate a whole lot. Boy was I surprised.
Whether it was my wide eyes at seeing the Ralph for the first time, or my strengthened focus due to a tighter deadline, I didn't really notice it Friday night, but the Badger fan base — relegated to an upper corner of the arena — was both amazing and amusing to me when I took notice Saturday.
Thanks to three first-period goals by the Badgers, the Sioux fans were stunned and silent. Take note, however, that North Dakota could have been up 3-0 and its fans might have been half as loud as a Kohl Center crowd with UW trailing 5-0 late in the game.
When one of the guys keeping official stats at the game told me that the stadium was great, but that the fans weren't quite up to speed, that may have been the understatement of the year.
Regardless, when the Badger fans started out with a hearty chant of "Lets go red" in the first period, their voices rung out louder than the North Dakota fans.
I would compare it to two high school student sections arguing over who has more spirit. You know what I'm talking about. One section starts the chant and the other section doesn't respond and the first section thinks it's hilarious. So they do it again, and usually on the third try, the second section responds and yada, yada, yada …
But I digress — the Badger fans got at least three "Let's go red"s in before the Sioux student section realized what was going on and tried to muffle it with "Let's go Sioux."
That was only the beginning.
Other chants, after the fourth goal, included "Robbie Earl," "1, 2, 3, 4 We want more … ," and my — and the Badgers'– favorite: "We want ice cream."
"We could hear the ice cream [chant] … that was pretty funny," senior winger Ryan MacMurchy said.
In case you don't know, if the Badgers score five goals in a win at the Kohl Center, all fans in attendance get free Culver's ice cream.
Let's just say that the small corner section would have made the student section's father-figure, Phil, quite proud.
The fans were loud and they were tasteful — something lacking in student sections such as the one at Badger football games.
But while Wisconsin football fans are notorious for being a good traveling fan base, it's time the hockey fans got some credit.
The Kohl Center fans are one thing. Wisconsin continually has not only the largest crowd — numbers aren't everything, as North Dakota showed — but I would venture to say the largest and most electric crowd in the country.
To take that energy on the road and out-yell the hometown crowd is another.
The players know how important the fans are.
"There's no doubt about it that Wisconsin Badger fans are the best in the country," MacMurchy said. "It's just so great playing at home because you know they're going to be into it the whole game. It's never kind of dead like it is [other places] sometimes.
"Our fans are the best part about our team, and when you hear them in an away rink it makes us smile inside and keeps us going."
If the Badgers can continue to play like they are, come tournament time teams are going to be in trouble. Not only will this team be a threat on the ice, it will have a threat off of it.
If a few dozen cheering fans can ring through on the road more than eight hours away, think about the environment that opposing teams will face if the Badgers go to the Green Bay regional of the NCAA tournament or the Frozen Four at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.
It's something that teams across the country can only hope they don't have to think about.