Past and Present Collide in Madison
Wisconsin-St. Cloud Will Fight for MacNaughton at Historic Venue
by Tony Jovenitti/CHN Reporter
MADISON, Wis. With regular-season championships and important playoff seeding on the line, the last weekend of the regular season almost always provides intrigue. But for the WCHA, this year’s final weekend gives fans and teams even more. Not only will teams fight for trophies and home ice in the playoffs, but for eight of the conference’s 12 teams, this marks the last-ever weekend of WCHA regular-season play; three quarters of the league will head to either the Big Ten or the National Collegiate Hockey Conference next fall.
And perhaps no series will encompass the emotions of this weekend better than Wisconsin hosting St. Cloud State at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum at Alliant Energy Center (formerly known as the Dane County Coliseum) on Friday and Saturday night in Madison.
St. Cloud hopes to clinch the school’s first-ever MacNaughton Cup as WCHA regular-season champions, while Wisconsin looks to earn a sweep and — with help from some other teams — earn a share of the championship.
Thanks to a scheduling conflict at the Kohl Center (the Wisconsin high school basketball championships will take place there this weekend), the hockey series will shift to the historic Coliseum, where the Badgers first started playing WCHA hockey. And, just for good measure, this is Wisconsin’s 50th season in the modern era.
“I think it’s ironic,” said Badgers head coach Mike Eaves, who called the Coliseum home as a player at Wisconsin. “The fact that this is the 50th season, and we’re coming back here to end it all in terms of the WCHA. And we have a chance to make some noise — it’s kind of neat and justified. Here we are, and it should be a lot of fun.”
After starting WCHA play 1-5-2, the Badgers stormed their way to an 11-2-5 record in the last 18 games and now find themselves just four points behind St. Cloud State for first place in the WCHA standings. Depending on what Minnesota, Minnesota State and North Dakota do this weekend, the Badgers can earn a share of the MacNaughton Cup with a sweep over the Huskies.
“With the ups and downs we’ve had this season, we put ourselves in a fairly good spot,” Badgers sophomore defenseman Jake McCabe said. “We have to bear down this weekend and get some points.”
But, if Wisconsin loses, there’s a good chance that it falls to seventh place and loses out on home-ice advantage for the playoffs next weekend. The Badgers are just two points ahead of Denver, which hosts Alaska-Anchorage.
“We can either be in first place, we can get home ice or we can be away for the first playoff series,” Badgers senior captain John Ramage said. “So this is huge for us.”
But it’s also huge for the Huskies, which haven't won the MacNaughton Cup since joining the WCHA in 1990.
“We obviously have a lot riding on this weekend,” Huskies senior captain Drew LeBlanc said. “We feel like we’ve put in the work and deserve to be in the spot we are.”
LeBlanc said the team continues to receive support from the entire St. Cloud community.
“It means quite a bit to the people that have played in our program and the people that have coached our program in the past,” he said. “I think they want it just as bad as we do.”
Former St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl, who coached the Huskies from 1987 to 2005, even called LeBlanc to wish him luck.
“So we have the support of the alumni and the old coaches. It’s pretty special for us to get a piece of that cup, so we’ll see how it plays out,” LeBlanc said.
Back to the Coliseum
Last summer, when Wisconsin announced that this series would move to the Alliant Energy Center because of high school basketball, many in the Badgers community were displeased.
“Right away, we were not happy about it," Eaves told the Wisconsin State Journal last June.
But it appears the Badgers have come around to the idea since then. The Wisconsin athletic department has dubbed this “Throwback Weekend,” and, as the Badgers practiced at the Coliseum throughout the week, a noticeable excitement buzzed throughout the storied halls of the old barn.
“Just going in there and practicing, you can feel how lively it is in there,” Ramage said. “You can feel the memories that have been made.”
The Badgers played at the Coliseum from 1967 until the Kohl Center opened in 1998. They haven’t played a game there since 2005 when Wisconsin beat Alaska-Anchorage in a three-game playoff series, 2-1.
The crowds at the Coliseum have been credited with originating the "sieve" chants that now echo through nearly every college hockey rink. Eaves, who played at the Coliseum under former coach “Badger” Bob Johnson from 1974 to 1978, said he can’t help but think of the incredible atmosphere the Coliseum provided whenever he walks into the building.
“In its day, this was the Kohl Center. There was nothing like it,” he said. “You had 8,600 people on Friday and a different 8,600 on a Saturday (season tickets were split, to satisfy demand), the band hanging over the glass, the beer garden, the banners hanging down.”
McCabe, who grew up in Eau Clair, Wis., never had the luxury of going to a Badgers game there as a kid, but he’s heard stories about the atmosphere and hopes Badgers fans can recreate it this weekend.
“Hopefully the fans will come out to support us and be rocking in there,” McCabe said.
At the other end of the ice, though, St. Cloud State doesn’t want the spectacle of this weekend to turn into a distraction. They have one goal this weekend: to earn a championship.
SCSU coach Bob Motzko tried to put it in perspective for his team, according to Huskies freshman forward Jonny Brodzinksi.
“Coach told us that we need to treat it like any other weekend but also with a little more importance," Brodzinski said. “To know that if you have that banner hanging up in the rink, it will be there for the rest of your life, and it will be something to look back on.”
Regardless what happens this weekend, both of these teams will play in the WCHA playoffs beginning next week. And the following weekend, the WCHA will crown its last tournament champion before realignment kicks in and gives the WCHA a drastically different look.
“We want to make our mark on the WCHA,” Ramage said. “It’s the last time we’ll be able to do that. All the guys know it, and they want to do well.”
Next season, the Badgers will join fellow WCHA member Minnesota, CCHA members Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State and newcomer Penn State to form a the Big Ten hockey conference. Meanwhile, St. Cloud State will join Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha to create the NCHC, which will also house current CCHA members Miami and Western Michigan.
The underclassmen on both teams shared feelings of sadness for leaving the WCHA but also excitement for the new conferences.
“We’re getting a bunch of good teams, and I think [the NCHC] is going to be one of the best,” Brodzinski said. “It’s definitely going to be a fun league to be a part of.”
McCabe said he’s looking forward to building new rivalries.
“And our rivalry with Minnesota is only going to get bigger now.
“One (favorite memory) that comes to mind was last year against Minnesota. We came into their building on Friday night, and we outplayed them the entire night and came out with the win. That atmosphere is awesome, and being able to silence a crowd like that was really cool.”
LeBlanc said he will remember the St. Cloud State home games against Minnesota the most.
“When the Gophers come to town, the crowds in our building get pretty rowdy,” he said. “It’s a fun place to be.”
Eaves’ most prominent WCHA memory came in his first season as a Badger.
“Going to Mariucci as a freshman and playing in that barn, I had never seen such an intense rivalry in my 18 years of life,” Eaves said. “It was unmitigated dislike for each other.”
While their biggest rival will remain in their conference, the Badgers will lose rivalries with North Dakota and Denver.
“I know the people in Wisconsin know how much they hate North Dakota and Denver, so it’s going to be sad to miss those,” Ramage said.
But it’s not over yet. Three weekends remain in WCHA play. And Brodzinski doesn’t want a regular-season series against Minnesota to be his best WCHA memory.
“Hopefully," he said, "we have more memorable stuff coming up these next couple weeks."