Thursday, April 06, 2006

Five Golden Rings . . . and Counting
In the late 1960s, men's hockey returned to the University of Wisconsin for the first time since the 1920s. Games were first played at little Hartmeyer Arena on the city's east side, which seated maybe a thousand fans. The real home of Wisconsin hockey, however, was the Dane County Coliseum, a 10,000-seat barn that quickly became the most feared home-ice venue in all of college hockey. At the Coliseum, Badger hockey wasn't just a game, it was a happening, a rock concert, tent revival, and fraternity blowout rolled into one.

(Despite having moved to the more sedate Kohl Center on campus in 1998, hockey games retain that loose, rock-and-roll vibe. The Mrs. and I attended our first UW basketball games this past season, and we couldn't believe the difference--how even with the game on the line in the final minute, most fans sat on their hands; how the cheerleaders--which UW hockey doesn't have--actually tamped down the enthusiasm of the student section instead of whipping it up; and how, in general Wisconsin hockey fans get more excited by the between-periods entertainment than basketball fans do for their damn game.)

It helped that the Badgers got very good very quickly, qualifying for NCAA tournament play as early as 1970, and winning their first national championship in 1973. Championships followed frequently after that--1977, 1980, 1983, 1990--five golden rings in all. What made those glory years even more glorious was the fact that Wisconsin hockey was the top sport on campus. The basketball program had been awful since the 40s; football was up and down; women's sports had yet to make any impact at all. Hockey was the toughest ticket in town--and the fact that it drew paying customers was critical, especially in the late 80s, when the athletic department was millions of dollars in debt and several programs were on the brink.

The UW athletic program rebounded in the 1990s--three Rose Bowls in football, Big Ten championships in basketball (and an unlikely Final Four appearance in 2000). For the hockey faithful, that was all very nice, but until hockey returned to national prominence, something would be missing. It's back, starting tonight, when the Badgers return to the NCAA Frozen Four for the first time since 1992. In addition to the Badgers, the tournament features three other storied college hockey programs: Maine (Wisconsin's opponent tonight), Boston College, and North Dakota. Whoever wins the championship on Saturday night is going to have earned it--in terms of tradition and power, this is roughly equivalent to a basketball Final Four of Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Kansas.

College hockey isn't bigtime like college football and basketball are bigtime. There are only about 60 schools playing in Division I, and many of those have joined Division I within the last five years. Those teams are almost exclusively in the Northeast and Midwest, except for outposts in Denver, Colorado Springs, Omaha, and Huntsville, Alabama. College hockey has no major national TV deal--it has to fight for airtime on a fifth-string ESPN channel, or on something called CSTV, or amidst the poker shows and infomercials on Fox's ad hoc network of low-rent regional sports channels. For most of its long season, October to April, it has trouble getting out of the agate type in the back of the sports section--if it gets into the sports section at all. Yet in the places where it matters most--New England, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin--college hockey is huge, and no weekend of the season is bigger than the one that starts today.

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