Dec. 5, 2006
It is neither small lettering nor the bright lights reflecting off the even brighter ice that blocks the vision of their names on their backs. Perhaps the only indication that women are indeed behind those caged helmets are ponytails that hang low, the reason for the disruption on the backs of their jerseys and a subtle reminder that the awesome athletes on the ice are girls.
The Gophers have captured three national championships including back-to-back stints in 2003-04 and 2004-05, while Wisconsin picked up its first NCAA title last year, which included a sweep of the WCHA regular season and tournament crowns. Despite it being the first year that two teams from the same conference faced each other for the national championship it was only natural that those two teams were Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Badgers defeated the two- time defending champions in a 3-0 decision to cap off a breakthrough season.
Individually, both teams have been represented well by personal accomplishments, combining for 26 All-WCHA selections and an astounding 62 Academic All-Big Ten honorees. In addition, Minnesota forward Krissy Wendell was honored in 2005 with the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award-a recently new national award created by the USA Hockey Foundation to recognize the accomplishments of the most outstanding player in women's intercollegiate ice hockey each season. Wisconsin junior Sara Bauer followed suit last year picking up the honor in addition to WCHA Player of the Year laurels. Both Wendell's and Bauer's accolades were firsts for their program.
While Minnesota holds a 24-10-3 series advantage (to date) and two-year program head start over Wisconsin, the Gopher/Badger rivalry has blossomed in the last couple of years due in part to Wisconsin's phenomenal title run last year. In that season, the Badgers added four more wins against the Gophers as they won three of the four regular season contests in addition to beating Minnesota in the WCHA Tournament title game, 4-1.
Perhaps the person who understands that rivalry the most is nine-year head coach Laura Halldorson who has guided Minnesota's program from the beginning.
"It's a growing rivalry. It has been a good rivalry because we both have strong programs and push each other to be the best," explained Halldorson. "Wisconsin is one of those opponents that draw bigger crowds to our rink. When you get the band and a couple thousand people, we can create an atmosphere that is very unique to our sport and really makes for a fun experience for our players and our fans. It gets loud in there and the games are always exciting and usually very close."
It is apparent that success is expected each year in Madison, especially while on the watch of fourth-year Wisconsin head coach Mark Johnson. Since taking over the helm in 2002, the Badgers have set school records for wins in each consecutive season, punctuated in last year's title sweep with a NCAA record-tying 36 victories. The Badgers also achieved what no other team had in the six-year history of the Women's Frozen Four--shutting out their semifinal and championship opponents. No shutouts had ever been recorded before in NCAA Championship history, but the Badgers did it twice last year.
While it may not be realistic for many teams, Johnson expects nothing less than a national title each year.
"Every year the goal should be the same," he says. "The goal two or three years ago is no different than last year as it is with this season. That is why we do what we do to try to get to the end for the chance to win."
Johnson boasts a 127-28-1 overall coaching record at Wisconsin to date.
This season the Badgers hold a 1-0-1 record over the Gophers but have yet to travel to Minneapolis to finish out the series. During the first weekend of 2007, Minnesota plays host to the Badgers in historic Ridder Arena. Built in 2002, the four-year old arena is the first facility devoted solely to women's ice hockey.
There is no denying Minnesota's domination over their nine-year history in comparison to Big Ten rivals Ohio State and Wisconsin. Along with three national titles, the Gophers have made five-straight NCAA Frozen Four appearances, more than any other program in the nation.
Halldorson, a three-time WCHA Coach of the Year, praises her staff, players and the administration for Minnesota's success over the years.
"Here at the University of Minnesota, women's hockey is a priority," said Halldorson. "It is treated very well and that reinforces all the messages that we as coaches want to give to our players in terms of really appreciating what they have here. We have a great group of people here working with our athletes to make them the best they can be both on and off the ice."
However, credit is also due to Halldorson who has recruited and coached 10 All-Americans and five Olympic gold medalists. Presently, six Minnesota alumnae hold spots on the 2006 U.S. National team.
"Recruiting is the life blood of any program and when recruits come in I think they get the sense of how our players are taken care of and the type of support they will receive," said Halldorson. "It doesn't hurt that we have a lot of girls playing hockey in Minnesota. We are right in the middle of this hotbed for our sport and I think we have established a strong tradition of bringing in the top local players. There are a lot of girls here in Minnesota that grow up wanting to be Gophers and that is exactly what we want them to think."
Minnesota's first national title came in 2000 after just three short years of existence and in the WCHAs inaugurial year. It was the first women's team in Minnesota history to garner a national title. Since then, the Gophers have added two more national crowns in addition to winning the regular season WCHA title four times and the tournament championship three times.
"People who haven't seen women's hockey will be impressed by how talented and skilled the players are. Not only our program but the teams we play against," said Johnson. "I think people who haven't been exposed to the sport don't really realize that these kids are good players. They are competitive and passionate about what they do and the end result is most of the people that walk away from the rink enjoy what they have seen."
So on an overcast Thanksgiving Day weekend this writer made her way to Madison, Wis., to take in her first women's ice hockey game. In that game, Wisconsin junior Jinelle Zaugg recorded her 14th goal of the season in the second period rallying the Badgers to a 1-0 win, helping to avenge the previous day loss to Minnesota-Duluth.
Coach Johnson's words rang true.
It was back to the car, thoroughly impressed.