Thank you, University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team, for making me a hockey fan.
What I love most about LaBahn Arena is its intimacy.
A person can walk around its upper bowl in less than two minutes if there isn’t a game going on, the chill of the ice just below. Inside the two entrances sit all the trophies the women’s hockey team has garnered, everything overlooking the Lance Johnson Memorial Rink. For the University of Wisconsin Badgers women’s hockey team – who call LaBahn home – there’s a whole mess of trophies and player recognition near the entrance.
LaBahn Arena has a listed seating capacity of 2,273. Nearly every game sells out. In fact, the 2018-19 Badgers drew 51,347 fans during the season for an average of 2,232 fans each game – or 98.2% capacity. The people of Wisconsin love their Badger women’s hockey team.
What’s great about LaBahn, is that all the seats for regular season home games are general admission, allowing the early bird fans the opportunity to sit next to the glass. Usually it’s the young kids and their grown-ups accompanying them sitting on the glass, but there are also the kids-at-heart that want to sit right on the ice. That’s where I come in.
I can still remember my first game at LaBahn back in 2014. It was Senior Day for the Badgers, and my wife and I had bought a couple tickets on a whim. We got to LaBahn early and after realizing we could sit wherever we wanted, we decided to sit in the front row, next to the glass. I mean, who wouldn’t want to sit right next to the ice, right?
From the opening face-off, the passion of the fans was palpable. And there I was, watching my first Badger hockey game – men’s or women’s – feeling the passion of the arena, and happy as hell we decided to sit next to the ice.
The first thing I noticed about the women was how good they were – like, really good. I had heard they were a good team, but never imagined they were this good. It was the men’s team that people usually talked about, with their rich tradition. But as I watched the women flying around the ice, executing perfect passing, playing pesky defense, displaying amazing fundamentals, and coming away with a 2-0 win, I found myself getting heavily involved in the game and I couldn’t believe I was only watching them for the first time.
I had never attended any level of hockey game until that day, having only watched the NHL very sporadically on TV. I lived in Detroit from 2007-2009, which is where I started following hockey, but I didn’t understand the rules or the penalty calls. Growing up in Iowa like I did, hockey is not really in the vocabulary.
But watching the Badger women on the ice that day was like watching a ballet on ice – with sticks. My perspective on hockey changed. Something clicked inside my head. I guess when a person can watch flawlessly executed hockey, it can be enjoyable and easier to understand. I was hooked and wanted more. It was that day that I fell in love with the Wisconsin Badgers women’s hockey team.
Fast forward five years, and here we are. The Badgers, appearing in their eighth NCAA championship game in school history, just won their fifth national championship by defeating conference foe Minnesota 2-0 in the championship game in Hamden, CT. It’s their first title since 2011, and my first ‘title’ as a fan.
Badger junior goaltender Kristen Campbell was named the most outstanding player of the NCAA tournament after posting three shutouts in three games, an emphatic stamp on a fabulous season in which she led the NCAA with a goal-against-average of 1.086. Campbell also posted nine shutouts during the regular season to lead the NCAA.
Senior forward Annie Pankowski scored a short-handed goal in the championship game to cap off her fantastic NCAA tournament and her even more impressive postseason. She had five goals in the three NCAA tourney games and an impressive 11 goals in seven games in the postseason, scoring a goal in every game.
Pankowski finishes her career as one of the greatest to ever skate for the Badgers. Pankowski had 28 goals this past season, good for third in the country, and finishes her illustrious Badger career as just the third Badger to have scored at least 20 goals in each of her four seasons. The other two? Three-time Olympians Hilary Knight and Meghan Duggan. Pankowski and Knight are also the only Badgers to be three-time Patty Kazmaier Award finalists. (The Patty Kazmaier Award is the Heisman Trophy of women’s hockey in case you were wondering). Pankowski was also named a first-team All American for the third time, joining Knight and Brianna Decker as the only Badgers to accomplish the feat. To say Annie Pankowski will be missed by the Badgers is an understatement.
But what’s great about the Badgers is that even though they are losing a player like Pankowski and a fantastic group of seniors, they never seem to have to rebuild – they simply reload.
Head coach Mark Johnson – whose career head coaching record now sits at 494-87-43, all with Wisconsin – does a phenomenal job of finding recruits that fit his system, a system that demands fundamentals and discipline. The Badgers should be loaded again next season and will look to defend their title in search of a sixth championship.
While I relish in the current moment of the Badgers winning it all, I think back to when I brought my daughter to her first hockey game three seasons ago, at the ripe age of seven months. I have brought her to a game or two each season since and now that I have a newborn daughter, I’ll hopefully have the opportunity to bring her to a game next fall as well.
I remember holding my first-born up to the glass that first time and one of the Badgers waving at her from the ice during warm-ups. It’s moments like that that make LaBahn such a special place, as I see other young girls waving to their heroes on the ice and getting waves back from the skaters – the intimacy. Not only are these Badgers fantastic players on the ice, they are inspirations to the hundreds of young girls in the stands that see a group of over 2,000 fans screaming for them.
The Badgers are a special team and they play in a special arena. When a fan can feel like they are a part of the team, it must be a special place. And when I see the interactions between the skaters and the fans that sit so close to the ice – especially all those young girls that look up to them as role models – it brings a happy tear to my eye.
So thank you. Thank you University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team and LaBahn Arena for making me a hockey fan. Thank you for showing my daughters that even champions on the ice can be heroes to the young fans in the stands without needing to bring home a trophy.
And congratulations on the national championship. You’ve earned it, you deserve it, and I’m so thrilled to see you bring home the trophy.
I’ll see you next season, Badgers – likely pressed up against the glass with my daughters.
Attendance figures courtesy of USCHO.com.