Coming off a border battle weekend in men’s hockey and heading into another border battle showdown in women’s hockey this coming weekend, the urge to compare the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota based simply off the sport of hockey is nearly irresistible. Unfortunately, I’m not going to tackle the subject of analyzing the overall merits of each state. However, when it comes to hockey, there’s quite a bit at stake in terms of bragging rights as evidenced by this past weekend. And although Minnesota claims to be the state of hockey, perhaps Wisconsin isn’t too far behind, and that goes a lot deeper than the sweep this past weekend by the Badgers at the Kohl Center.
Of the 25 players on the United States men’s hockey Olympic roster, four are former players of a certain Midwestern university, and no other school has more than three of its alumni playing for Team USA. What college hockey program am I referring to? It has to be Minnesota, right? Shockingly, it’s not.
After having two players on Team USA four years ago in Vancouver, this time around in Sochi four former Badgers will lace up their skates for the red, white and blue. That might not seem like a grand accomplishment, but in comparison, Minnesota and North Dakota are the only two other hockey programs that have more than one of their ex-players competing for Team USA in the Sochi Games.
It used to be that college players were direct representatives of their universities, bringing the Disney movie “Miracle” to mind. The college athletes flocked to Colorado Springs, sporting their college gear for the tryouts and basing their associations with the other players on what college they were from or were currently attending.
But the times have changed and the associations between the players on the Olympic teams as of late have a lot more to do with what NHL team they are playing for, although only five of the players on Team USA didn’t play any college hockey.
The athletes, too, are much different than they once were, which Wisconsin assistant men’s hockey coach Gary Shuchuk explained in an interview this past week, yet there is still a connection between the college hockey programs and the NHL players that make up the Olympic teams.
“It takes an elite athlete and hockey player to play in the NHL now, so the guys that come back here that are alumni that play in the NHL—they’re elite athletes. One, they’re a great time here in Madison. They’re dedicated hockey players. They do their stuff in the summer. They train,” Shuchuk said. “I can’t just say because they’re Olympians, but because they’re NHL guys and playing at that high level that’s what makes it special.”
The four former Wisconsin hockey players include Ryan Suter, who played with the Badgers in 2003-2004; Joe Pavelski (2004-2006); Ryan McDonagh (2007-2010); and Derek Stepan (2008-2010). Those four ex-Badgers playing in the Olympics are the second-most Wisconsin has had in one games behind the 1984 Sarajevo Games and the 2002 Salt Lake Games, both of which saw five former Badgers compete and the latter with Dany Heatley playing for Team Canada.
Despite the Sochi class of Badgers comprising their second-largest, Wisconsin has had a long tradition of sending hockey players to the Olympics. Minnesota has the large edge here, with 54 Gophers having played hockey at the Olympics to just 23 for Wisconsin, so there’s no dispute with the “state of hockey” notion on that statistic. Still, Wisconsin has had its fair share of Olympians, fourth-most all-time behind Minnesota, Boston College and Boston University.
And although Wisconsin might have less Olympians, those that played for Wisconsin and then went on to the Olympics were some of the more memorable athletes. The one that stands out is Mark Johnson, member of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” team that surprised the Soviet Union and the world when it won the gold medal. Johnson was at the forefront of that effort, leading the United States in points during the tournament. There’s also Chris Chelios, the iron man defenseman who played in four winter games, his first and last games 22 year apart.
And throughout all these performances from former Badger standouts, the one thing that stands out from them is not necessarily how they play, but who these Badgers are as people. For the 11th straight Winter Games a player who once donned red and white for Wisconsin will sport the ‘A’ or ‘C’ patch on his sweater for Team USA. This year Ryan Suter will serve in one of the captain roles for the United States men’s team as an alternate, while former Badger Meghan Duggan will captain the women’s team.
Wisconsin high school hockey may never be on par with what Minnesota has to offer and the Wisconsin men’s and women’s hockey teams might not always sweep the Gophers, but the Badgers have a proven tradition of producing excellence on and off the ice.
“It’s also bragging rights for those guys,” Shuchuk said. “When they get to Sochi, there’s four of those guys hanging out, ex-Badgers. They can tell their stories about living in Madison and stuff. Where the one or two guys … whether they’re from Maine or wherever they’re from — they can [only] tell their stories to themselves. So it’s a bragging right. It’s a pride thing.”
That bragging right isn’t just limited to the players. Whether you know everything about hockey or even if you’ve never watched a game in your life, the chance to watch a fellow Badger on the world stage as they represent this university is something very few other students and alumni of other schools have the luxury of doing.
As the world draws together to celebrate sport, we can all have a great sense of pride knowing we get to celebrate some of our own.