The fourth edition of “Year of the Badger” takes a look at one of Wisconsin’s most historically dominant programs, Mike Eaves and the men’s hockey team.
In the 1970s and ’80s, when the Wisconsin men’s basketball and football teams were consistently the laughingstock of the Big Ten, Badgers fans relied on the men’s hockey team to give them something to cheer about year in and year out.
Starting with the hiring of “Badger Bob” Johnson in 1966, UW has become a national powerhouse in men’s hockey, winning three national titles (1973, 1977, and 1981) during Johnson’s historic 15-year tenure at the school.
This success continued, albeit to a slightly lesser degree, under his successor, Jeff Sauer.
Wisconsin won another national championship in 1983, Sauer’s first season, but would win just one more during his tenure, in 1990.
Following the 1990 title, the Badgers failed to live up to the lofty expectations they had set for themselves through their past success. While they did make an appearance in the Frozen Four in 1992 and won the WCHA conference tournament in both 1995 and 1998, they were unable to capture another national championship during the decade.
When Sauer retired at the conclusion of the 2001-02 season, he was replaced by the program’s all-time leading scorer and captain of the 1977 national championship team, Mike Eaves.
Eaves finally returned the Badgers to national prominence by leading them to a national title in 2006, thus ending a 16-year drought. The program’s six national championship victories are the fourth most in NCAA men’s hockey history.
After missing the NCAA tournament in both 2011 and 2012, UW has righted the ship once again, winning conference tournament titles in each of the past two years.
The Badgers entered the 2013-14 season with national title expectations, though it ended up being quite the roller coaster ride.
Following a 4-5-1 start to the campaign, Wisconsin got back on track to finish the regular season strong, before going on to win the inaugural Big Ten tournament on a dramatic OT goal by Mark Zengerle.
Eaves’ team entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed, but suffered a disappointing loss in the first round against former WCHA rival North Dakota.
The Badgers lose nine seniors from last season’s team, along with junior defenseman Jake McCabe and sophomore forward Nic Kerdiles, who opted to forgo their remaining college eligibility and declare for the NHL draft. This means the team will be losing seven of their top eight leading scorers.
While the loss of so many key players is a significant blow to the program, there still is reason for Badgers fans to have some optimism heading into next year.
True, Wisconsin will have a very youthful team in 2014-15, Eaves’ squad has the good fortune of being anchored once again by standout goaltender Joel Rumpel, who was solid between the pipes for the Badgers last season.
Rumpel posted 21-6-1 record to go along with a 2.07 goals against average and a .929 save percentage in 2013-14, both of which were good enough for second in the Big Ten. For his efforts, he was named a finalist for both the Mike Richter Award (nation’s most outstanding goaltender) and the Hobey Baker Award (country’s most outstanding player).
In addition to Rumpel, the Badgers also return forwards Joseph LaBate, Grant Besse, and Morgan Zulinick, plus defenseman Kevin Schulze, all of whom recorded at least 14 points last season.
They also will be getting incoming freshman defenseman Jack Dougherty, who could certainly come in and contribute to the team right away.
So despite the fact that Eaves’ team will be playing a pretty tough non-conference schedule, they still have plenty of talent and potential.
Having a stellar veteran goaltender like Rumpel will hide some of the errors that will inevitably occur due to the inexperience of the Badgers, so if they can mature and make strides as a team throughout the course of the season, they still will have a realistic shot to contend in the Big Ten.