With yet another undefeated start to their regular season coming fresh off an NCAA Title earlier in 2019, it’s time to ask the question of why the Wisconsin women’s hockey team is so good at what they do.
Yes, Minnesota and Wisconsin arguably constitute the heart of hockey culture in the United States, but there’s more to the story than that. The majority of football recruits come out of Texas, Florida and California, yet Midwest teams like The Ohio State University and Notre Dame are continually at the top of collegiate competition.
There’s more to their success than simply geographic location, so what exactly is it?
Perhaps the most important factor in the Badgers’ success is Head Coach Mark Johnson. With a strong record as an amateur and professional hockey player, Johnson returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach. He remained in that position until 2002 when he took over the program following the departure of former coach Trina Bourget.
While strong results weren’t immediate, Johnson made his value as a coach immediately clear as the mid 2000s was arguably the peak of Wisconsin hockey as a whole. In the seven seasons between 2004 and 2011, Johnson and his squad brought home four NCAA Titles in just six total appearances.
Already an incredible stretch of titles, the Badgers also had a championship game loss to Minnesota-Duluth in 2008. This means that in six total appearances to the Frozen Four in a seven-year stretch, Johnson and the Badgers won four titles and lost in the championship game once.
While this stunning pace has not been kept up in the last eight years after 2011, Johnson has continually proved himself to be a winning coach, the likes of which Wisconsin never saw before his return. Star sophomore Sophie Shirley understands just what makes Johnson such a great coach.
“Everything he says you want to swallow it up and take as much knowledge in as you can,” Shirley said. “We really respect him as a coach.”
But Johnson isn’t on the ice when the games are won despite the talent he had as a player back in the day. The Badgers’ extremely high talent level is largely a result of one major reality — they are particularly adept at poaching talent from outside the state as well as across our northern border.
Somewhat surprisingly, very few of Wisconsin’s top point scorers actually come from Wisconsin. Over the last five years, an average of just one Wisconsinite has been in the top 10 total point scorers for the Badgers. So they had to go elsewhere for their talent. Perhaps the most notable example of this is Badger legend Annie Pankowski from California.
California is not typically thought of as a hub of developing hockey talent, but Pankowski made her way to Wisconsin nonetheless. Even with out-of-state contributions, primarily from Minnesota, the Badgers’ most common source of talent is Canada.
In the last five seasons, an average of nearly four out of every 10 of the top point scorers for the Badgers have been from Canada. Without these players, it’s difficult to see how the Badgers would have a path to a title game or even the Frozen Four.
While it’s tough to tell exactly where this extensive recruiting prowess stems from, I think it’s a safe bet to believe that, once Johnson got the ball rolling for the Badgers, he had little trouble finding willing recruits to join such a winning team.
While coming to the conclusion that Johnson’s coaching ability as well as the Badgers’ propensity to attract talent across North America are responsible for their success is not a groundbreaking conclusion, it does highlight just how well they do in each of those respects.
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Each top program in women’s hockey is going to have a good coach that is more than capable of recruiting some of the best players in the nation to play for their program. It’s not that the Badgers are special in this regard — it’s just that they manage to do it better than everyone else.
Without that hot streak that Johnson procured from his team in the mid-to-late 2000s, we might very well be looking at a completely altered program compared to where it is today. His ability to win championships set the tone of the program for the next decade, culminating in yet another national title last season, their first since 2011.