Before he got on the ice with his University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team for the first time this season, Tony Granato had a quick answer when asked what most excited him about the group.
After the first practice and a few times since, a similar response emerged: The character of the players has the third-year Badgers coach looking forward to working with the 25 players on the roster.
“As a staff, you want a guy here that you’re going to enjoy being around every day,” Granato said. “It’s no different than anything else in the workplace. When you’re around people that you want to be around, it makes life and going to work every day a lot more enjoyable.”
The interpretation of character varies, but the Badgers see it as a focal point as the 2018-19 season opens Sunday with a 5 p.m. exhibition game against Victoria at the Kohl Center.
For his part, Granato used his captain and a former player as examples of the kind of character that UW has sought in recruiting the last two freshman classes.
Senior defenseman Peter Tischke and winger Ryan Wagner, who’s playing in the American Hockey League this season after completing his eligibility last March, are the heart-and-soul kinds of individuals that Granato identified as models. They outperform their skill level and play in a way that makes you think they don’t want to let their teammates down.
The Badgers need to be a harder team to play against, Granato said, and having more players who are harder to play against puts that in motion.
“We have to be guys that can get in on a forecheck, that can be physical, that can compete for space,” he said.
In practice, this season’s nine-person freshman class has put elements of skill and toughness on display. They’ve also been an enthusiastic group, something that has caught Granato’s eye.
“They haven’t played a game yet in college hockey, but what we’ve seen through the recruiting process, what we’ve seen since they’ve gotten on campus, that’s what we thought we were getting,” Granato said.
Sunday’s exhibition against Victoria, a Canadian school that UW defeated 10-1 two seasons ago, gives the Badgers a trial run before the real need for character arrives. Fifteen of the first 16 games on the regular-season schedule are against teams ranked in the USCHO.com preseason top 20.
Unranked after a 14-19-4 season in 2017-18, the Badgers have good depth on defense but have to address the loss of key offensive personnel and identify which goaltender will get the majority of the minutes.
Neither of those areas seems primed for a quick fix at the start of the campaign, so the Badgers’ emphasis on building a roster of high-character individuals addresses the competitive side.
“Obviously, there’s talent and skill,” said sophomore forward Linus Weissbach, the team’s top returning scorer. “But in the end, I think character is more important. And we definitely have it.”
The Badgers have recruited some pro-caliber talent under Granato — eight of the 25 players on this year’s roster are NHL draft picks, sixth-most in college hockey — but he said character is at the top of the list in player selection.
The scouting indicators are plentiful if you know where to look, Granato said. How does a player practice? How does he treat his teammates? How does he react when his team gets scored upon?
Granato said there are players that the Badgers backed away from in the recruiting process because their actions didn’t line up with what UW sought in character.
“And hopefully we’re right more often than we’re wrong,” he said. “This class, we’re really excited about what they can do. Last year’s class was rock solid as well. So you put back-to-back solid classes in and it changes the whole dynamic of your program.”
Tischke, chosen to lead the players because the way he plays matches his coach’s expectations, said teams that are high in character win championships. No one on the outside is predicting that for the Badgers — they were picked for sixth in the seven-team Big Ten Conference — but Tischke said there’s a good culture building with the team.
“I think everyone’s excited for Sunday, getting the first game under our belts,” he said. “And I think throughout however many months we’ve been together, everyone’s become closer and closer. I can call every one of these kids my best friend, so I love that. I’m just really excited to see where the year’s going to take us.”
The answers start to come on Sunday.