Every sport has a magic number that all athletes strive to reach – whether it be 300 wins for a pitcher in baseball or 1,000 rushing yards for a running back in a football season – athletes and fans use these benchmarks as a sign that a player has made it.
For college hockey that number is 100 career points.
On the Wisconsin hockey team, only 70 players had reached that threshold in the sport’s illustrious 50-year career in the modern era heading into 2013.
But on Feb. 1 against North Dakota in a hostile Ralph Engelstad Arena, that exclusive club added one more: junior Mark Zengerle.
The goal, which came 13 seconds after a goal by UND, couldn’t have come at a more important moment, and it helped the Badgers rally to earn a hard-fought 1-1 tie in one of the toughest venues in college hockey.
“Our talk on the bench, ‘let’s respond’,” head coach Mike Eaves said of the one goal deficit said after the game. “That is the best response we can get by going out and scoring right away.”
The point itself wasn’t that pretty – a fact that a humble Zengerle is the first to admit.
“It really wasn’t too much on my part,” Zengerle said. “I just kinda got my stick in there behind the net in the corner and the garbage man [Michael Mersch] over here did the rest.”
And yet it seemed fitting that a player who has made a career mostly on his ability to facilitate his teammates’ goal scoring – earning at least 30 assists in each of his first two seasons, which put him in elite company with only three other Badgers – earned it in such a way.
“My parents were in town last weekend [for the game] and my mom was like, ‘You have to get it on a goal,’ but whatever, I don’t really care … I’m more of an assist man anyways so it kinda made sense, but it would have been nicer to have a goal,” he said.
More unfortunate, however, was the fact that the Rochester, N.Y., native’s shining moment came while the Badgers were visiting bitter-rival North Dakota and not at home in the Kohl Center.
Instead of a raucous round of applause in front of a friendly set of Wisconsin fans clad in cardinal and white, Zengerle’s accomplishment went largely unnoticed at UND – save a few congratulations from his teammates after the game – and Zengerle didn’t draw attention to it.
“I congratulated him [after the game], I think everyone did,” junior winger Michael Mersch said. “It’s a huge individual statistic – great for him – but he was pretty humble about it.”
When an athlete reaches one of these well-established milestones, it can be easy to forget the road that brought them there, but 100 points didn’t come easy for the junior. Zengerle had to overcome considerable adversity in the early part of the season to even put himself in the position to go into the Wisconsin hockey record books as a 100-point scorer.
When the season began, and as the Badgers faltered out of the gates – losing their first seven out of 10 games – Zengerle was off to the races recording two goals and four assists in the first five games of the season to lead the Badgers in scoring.
With 86 points already recorded over his freshman and sophomore seasons at UW, and six points at that point in 2012-13, Zengerle’s career total of 92 points placed him just eight shy of 100.
For Badger fans, whether or not he would reach 100 points never seemed in doubt, but rather people wondered how quickly it would be done, and in his form, it seemed that would’t be too far off.
But that was all before Colorado College came to town Nov. 3 and 4.
Following a loss in the opening game of the series on Friday 5-4 in overtime, a freak play in which Zengerle attempted to block a CC player’s shot in game two resulted in a broken index finger for the UW’s center.
After sitting out the next six games – a period in which the Badgers earned just a single win – Zengerle finally made his return against Michigan Tech Dec. 2 still sitting eight points short. Despite his highly anticipated return, he wasn’t able to pick up where he left off at the beginning of the season offensively, earning zero points in his first two games back.
But it is at times like these the greatest players perform at their best, and that is just what Zengerle did.
Over his next 10 games, Zengerle would go on to score seven points in the run up to his 100th point Feb. 1 in Grand Forks, N.D, helping the Badgers climb back into the WCHA title race along the way.
Now with the milestone reached, it might have been easy for Zengerle to take his foot off the gas pedal – even if subconsciously – but for UW’s key offensive man it was never about how many goals and assists he could rack up.
“If someone had told me five years ago that I would score 100 points at Wisconsin, I would probably have laughed and said, ‘yeah right, in my dreams’,” Zengerle said. “But it’s pretty cool, some of the players that have reached that, and a lot of them have played in the NHL.”
Soon enough, the undrafted NHL prospect may just get an opportunity to join those UW 100-point earners to come before him in the league. But for now Wisconsin’s offensive maestro is happy to continue making his teammates look good – one goal at a time.