The Badger men's hockey team is set to open its season out west this weekend at the Maverick Stampede in Omaha, Nebraska. They will open play Friday night at 8:00 p.m. (CDT) against the host team, the University of Nebraska-Omaha (0-0-0). No. 12 Maine (0-0-0) will take on No. 1 Minnesota (0-0-0) at 5 p.m. The losing teams from each game will meet in the third place game at 5 p.m. on Saturday, with the winners squaring off at 8 p.m. All of the games will take place at the brand new Quest Center Omaha, which holds almost 15,000 fans around an NHL-sized rink. Each Badger game will be televised live on Fox Sports North and called live on radio station WIBA 1310 AM.
Badger fans will be looking for a more successful season than last year when they went 13-23-4 overall. This weekend will give the team a chance to prove themselves early against two quality opponents. After struggling last year in head coach Mike Eaves' debut season, the team has used the summer and preseason to make sure everyone knows the system.
"Last year we basically had 28 freshmen. They knew nothing about us and we knew nothing about them," Eaves said. "This year we've really only got about four guys that we're dealing with in terms of learning a new system."
Playing as a team has been a point of emphasis for this team. For the third time since 1976, the team has selected tri-captains. Senior forward Rene Bourque, and senior defensemen Dan Boeser and Andy Wozniewski will rotate wearing the "C" for the Badgers throughout the season.
"Last year nobody could really step up to the plate and talk to the coaches or let the team know what's going on. This year guys have someone to look to, to be more responsible," Wozniewski said.
The Badgers will need to play as a team if they hope to succeed this weekend. Omaha returns three of its top five scorers from last year's squad. They are much like the Badgers in that they are young and are coming off of a tough season. The loss of their starting goaltender could be their weakest link.
"We don't really know much about them," Wozniewski said. "We're just going to focus on our team and control all that we can control."
Saturday's game is sure to be even tougher. Maine and Minnesota are both excellent teams and are nationally ranked. The two teams squared off in the 2002 National Championship. The Badgers lost all four times they played the Golden Gophers last year, and have not played Maine since 1991.
"We will do a live scout. We have our notes from last year, but we'll be there early Friday night for the 5 o'clock game to scout Minnesota and Maine," Eaves said.
Off-ice situations have already affected the Badgers before this season has begun. Former Badger Alex Leavitt's pending lawsuit and the tragic car accident involving Dany Heatley, former Badger and brother of Wisconsin forward Mark Heatley, are potential distractions.
"I don't think that's going to be a factor at all. The team is doing well and we are not worrying about it too much," said freshman defenseman Ryan Suter, who was selected by WCHA coaches as the preseason Rookie of the Year. "Winning this weekend would be huge. We are going on the road and there are a lot of expectations."
Expectations are high for the incoming class. Players like Suter, forward Robbie Earl and other young members of this Badger squad will need to step up for this team to succeed. Their first chance comes against worthy competition this weekend in Nebraska.