Before the four NCAA championships, before the string of tournament and Frozen Four appearances and league titles, before they even had facilities to call their own, University of Wisconsin women’s hockey players were operating out of borrowed space.
Imagine a team without a dedicated locker room of its own, using the visiting football space inside Camp Randall Stadium to get ready for practice before carrying their equipment to and from the nearby Shell ice rink.
The memory draws chuckles from those who were there for the early days of the Badgers program as they compare things to today, when their comfortable home in LaBahn Arena stands as something that would have been unimaginable back then.
The environment has changed drastically but there are constants that unite the early Badgers players and those who are with the team in this, the 20th season.
“The roots were set right from the start, just the hard work and the discipline,” said Sis Paulsen, a defenseman on the inaugural 1999-2000 team who last year became UW’s director of women’s hockey operations and equipment manager.
“On and off the ice, holding yourselves and each other accountable. That’s what I see as a consistency right from the first day I got on campus as a player to now. The leaders that we had from the start and the groundwork that we laid was pretty consistent.”
The second-ranked Badgers are celebrating their 20th season during Sunday’s finale of a non-conference series against Princeton at LaBahn Arena. The idea was hatched at a late date, and Paulsen said a bigger blowout will happen for the 25th anniversary, but dozens of former players are due back in Madison.
Friday’s game, meanwhile, fetes the 10th anniversary of the 2008-09 NCAA championship team that went 34-2-5 and produced four members of the following year’s U.S. Olympic team — Hilary Knight, Meghan Duggan, Jessie Vetter and Erika Lawler — as well as coach Mark Johnson.
Badgers assistant coach Jackie Crum, who played for UW starting in the third season of 2001-02, had a phrase for the kind of ethos that Paulsen said has been with the team since the beginning: “A Midwestern, hard-work mentality.”
“Obviously, a lot of people out there stress hard work, but I think you see that with our teams,” she said. “And every year, we’re just like, ‘Wow, they’re working hard. This is great. It’s fun to coach them.’ And it seems like we say that year after year after year.”
Johnson took over the team in the fourth season, 2002-03, and built on the foundation to send the program to the top of women’s college hockey in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2011. The Badgers have won seven Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season titles — including the last three — and seven league playoff crowns.
Five of Johnson’s players have won the Patty Kazmaier Award as the top player in Division I women’s hockey.
Against Minnesota Duluth last Sunday, Johnson became the winningest coach at the National Collegiate women’s hockey level with his 465th victory as UW improved to 6-0 this season.
“I reflect back on the 20 years of the program and where it’s come and how far it’s gone, and now we’ve got a beautiful LaBahn Arena to play in front of,” Johnson said. “We’ve played in a bunch of sellout crowds, had NCAA quarterfinal games. My crystal ball, 20 years ago, would the program be in this position and would it be this far along with women’s hockey? It would have been tough to predict that. But it’s in a great place.”
Earlier this year, Johnson was part of an eight-person committee formed by the WCHA to help determine candidates for a league 20th anniversary team that will be unveiled throughout the season. He thought he might spend a half-hour sifting through his players and others from the league’s history.
Days later, he was deep into the list of players that eventually was whittled down to 41 finalists, 12 of whom played for UW.
Eleven of them are from the Badgers’ corps of 18 All-Americans. But to illustrate the difficulty in narrowing the field, there wasn’t room for two-time All-Americans Meghan Hunter and Bobbi-Jo Slusar and three-time Olympian Meaghan Mikkelson.
“Some of the players that didn’t make the list are pretty good players,” Johnson said. “So it’s a challenge. It’s a tribute to those individuals and certainly to women’s hockey.”
Crum argued that the list of Badgers greats isn’t limited to the All-Americans pictured on the LaBahn Arena concourse. Especially in recent seasons, UW has attracted players from under-18 national teams in the U.S. and Canada, making the talent pool that much deeper.
“That’s what we recruit to,” Crum said. “Yes, I think we have a great program here, but if you want to get better, you want to play with other great players. And they’re going to make you better. So that’s what we have here. I think it elevates everybody.”