As they streak up and down the ice, you notice it. You’re not looking at their jerseys, looking for the puck or waiting for that big hit that starts a fight. No. It’s the little tufts of hair peeking out of their helmets, blown back from constantly skating up and down the ice.
On the eve of the 2012-13 Wisconsin men’s hockey season, it’s time for hockey hair. With the flow cut short to kick off the year, most guys sporting the longer hair won’t cut it until after the season is over.
“You kind of want to look like a slob come playoff time, maybe a little older and meaner,” junior forward Mark Zengerle said. “I don’t think I’ve cut my hair since August … I don’t think we’re cutting it until the season is over. It’s tradition of the sport, more than anything, to get that sloppy kind of look going late in the season.”
For some it’s a habit, just the thing to do, but for others it’s superstition.
Last season, after a bad loss late in the year, sophomore goaltender Joel Rumpel promptly cut his shaggy frock in exchange for some new energy.
“It’s kind of something on the inside, I don’t know what explains it,” Rumpel said. “We were in a little bit of a slump there, we weren’t playing so well so I thought I’d switch something up so I had to cut the hair off – had to get a new vibe or something going.”
Sure it’s all superstition, but it seemed to work as the Badgers went on a tear, winning five of their final eight games of the season.
In those final games, a youthful badger team was finally starting to live up to its potential – only for that run to be cut short in the first round of the WCHA playoffs in Denver.
“We fell short of our goals,” junior defenseman Frankie Simonelli said. “We just have to take that edge with us into this year and bring the young guys in and get them on the same page.”
“Rather than hitting our stride at the end of playoffs last year, we want to hit our stride a lot sooner,” Rumpel added. “Hopefully we can feed off that.”
After a 2011-12 season riddled with youth, the young Badger pups were forced to play more and gain more experience than freshmen and sophomores normally would.
But this season with their experiences in tow, there is a distinct feel that they are no longer a team experiencing growing pains.
“I don’t think so, no,” Rumpel said. “Last year we felt a little young. Everybody put that label on us, which is pretty tough. But I know this year our entire team is with a new swagger in the room. Everybody feels a lot older, a lot stronger, a lot more confident. I think that will show on the ice as well. Everybody’s stepping up in different ways, and we’re going to need that to make a run at things here this year.”
During the offseason the Badgers lost only a handful of players and return 20 players, all of which have game experience.
But one significant name missing from that roster is Justin Schultz, who signed a contract with the Edmonton Oilers over the summer. Schultz was a significant factor in Wisconsin’s offense – recording 16 goals and 28 assists last year – as a defenseman.
“You’re not going to have a 40-point guy, 20-goal scorer on the blue line this year, probably not in the whole country,” Zengerle said.
“Defensively, guys like me and [John] Ramage, we’ve got to pick up the slack,” Simonelli said. “And the young guys coming in – Kevin Schulze, Chase Drake had an impact last week – hopefully we can get guys like that to just keep taking steps forward and that’ll be a big help.
Schultz’s stats were only second to Zengerle, who put together a 50-point season on 13 goals and 37 assists. With Schultz gone, Zengerle isn’t shying away from the bigger, leading role he is anticipated to have.
“I’m fine with it,” Zengerle said of having a target on his back this year. “I like that. It makes me want to do better and kind of bug them when they don’t do their role. I like having that on me.”
The Rochester, N.Y. native certainly carries a lot of Wisconsin’s expectations on his shoulders, but the team is confident it has plenty of depth to help UW reach its goal – playing hockey in April.
The Badgers are currently ranked No. 15 in the nation and believe they are more than ready to make a huge jump before the season is over. In a season chock-full of special settings and anniversaries, Wisconsin is hoping to top it all off with a trip to the Frozen Four.
“The realistic goal would be a national championship in the end,” Simonelli said. “But we’ve got to play weekend by weekend and focus on going 2-0 every weekend leading up to that to give ourselves the best chance to take a crack at it.”
This season the Badgers are celebrating their 50th year in the modern era as well as the 40th anniversary of the 1973 national championship and the 30th anniversary of the 1983 national championship.
As head coach Mike Eaves put it, when it rains, it pours.
This is also Wisconsin’s last season in the WCHA while celebrating the opening of La Bahn Arena, its new practice facility and new locker room. Eaves’ squad plays three neutral site games including an outdoor game at Soldier Field against Minnesota Feb. 17.
This weekend, the Badgers open regular season play with Northern Michigan at the Resch Center in Green Bay.
Last year, Wisconsin hosted the Northern Michigan in their season opener. Wisconsin lost in overtime 3-2, but bounced back in game two with a 3-2 victory to split the series.
“I’m not sure exactly what they lost or gained, but just going off of last year, they’re like a lot of teams in the WCHA – a lot of teams in hockey as a matter of fact … the first game of the year, everyone’s coming out heart’s pumping, you’re excited to play and playing a team like Wisconsin with that big name, you’re always fired up,” Zengerle said.