Women's hockey: On the rise

Frozen Four appearance builds recognition for budding program

MADISON — Mark Johnson picked up a newspaper Sunday morning to see a large, color photograph on the front of the sports section from the previous night's hockey game. It was a pictorial representation of a scene from his University of Wisconsin women's hockey team's thrilling 2-1 double-overtime win over Mercyhurst in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, a victory that qualified the Badgers for their first ever Frozen Four.

Later that morning, Johnson, the Badgers' fourth-year head coach, appeared on local television, talking about his still nascent, but highly successful program.

There has been quite a stir around women's hockey this week, a program whose press attention typically centers around a student newspaper reporter or two.

Things change when you are competing for a national championship.

The second-seeded Badgers (34-4-1) take on No. 3-seed St. Lawrence (31-4-2) in a national semifinal at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis at 4 p.m. today. The winner will advance to the national title game at 3 p.m. Sunday, against the winner of the No. 1 New Hampshire/No. 4 Minnesota matchup. A live television broadcast of Wisconsin's games is available on CSTV nationally, and on UPN 14 locally, and 1070 AM is carrying Friday's game on the radio.

"When you go the Frozen Four and you're one of the last four teams in the country it just helps," Johnson said. "It exposes our program not only around the city of Madison and the state of Wisconsin but out nationally too because this game will be on TV and people will be able to watch our club play."

It was almost eight years ago that the UW athletic department gave birth to a Division I women's hockey program, a team that began competing in the 1999-2000 season.

The program has come a long way in a hurry. The team was a respectable 19-14-2 in its inaugural season, but was nowhere near on par with national powers and Western Collegiate Hockey Association foes Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth.

The Badgers have improved every year since, steadily increasing their win totals and national esteem.

Saturday, in front of 1,333 fans packed into the cozy confines of Middleton's Capital Ice Arena — women's hockey's adopted home with the WIAA boys' state basketball championships using the Kohl Center — the Badgers qualified for the Frozen Four.

"From the beginning of the year it (has been) a goal for everyone on the team," junior defender Kristen Witting said. "We had a lot of high expectations and we worked hard the whole season. This is what we've worked for and now we're here. Now all we're hoping is to win it all."

Simply qualifying for the NCAA's postseason for just the second time in school history has gone a long way to raise awareness for a program that has increased its average home attendance from 364 in 2001-02, the year before Johnson took over, to 1,272 this season.

"I think it's good publicity for us," Witting said. "It's something that I think we're deserving of. We've gotten better each year…The attendance isn't there yet, but we still do draw good crowds….

"I'm hoping each year that fans are going to realize that there's a good program here and it's worthwhile checking it out and coming to games regularly."

The sport certainly has a ways to go. Witting tells an anecdote of how one of her teammates needed to explain to a professor that they had reached the Frozen Four, and would have to reschedule an exam. The team left for Minneapolis after practice at the Kohl Center here Wednesday afternoon.

"She had to tell her that we were going to be out of town and wouldn't be able to take the test," Witting said. "It's getting there and hopefully people will recognize — especially if we win the whole thing — that there's something coming out of this program."

The women's hockey program models its long-term growth on the success UW's women's volleyball (3,758 average home attendance in 2005) and basketball (6,016 in '05-06) programs have had developing fan bases.

"I think it's come a great way because I think the city is starting to recognize us a lot more," said senior assistant captain Nikki Burish, of the growth in the sport since her freshman year. "We're getting more fans each and every year and media coverage has picked up. I think just the whole school in general, as a whole, is becoming more aware of women's hockey and of our program. I think being successful is what's really kicking it off and making people be more aware of our program."

"I think it's gone a long ways but it definitely still has a long way to go," senior captain Sharon Cole said. "I know that we'd like to see support like women's basketball and women's volleyball has… but it's gotten better since freshman year."

It helps to have world-class players. All-Olympic defender Carla MacLeod (Canada) and U.S. Olympic defender Molly Engstrom were seniors at UW last season. Current Badger junior forward Sara Bauer, the U.S. College Hockey Online national player of the year, and junior defender Bobbi-Jo Slusar, USCHO's defensive player of the year, have Olympic potential, and several other Badgers have international-level experience.

And it helps to play an exciting, overtime game to reach the Frozen Four, especially after finishing the previous three seasons just outside of that cherished territory.

Said Johnson: "Certainly with what's happened this last week, winning a really dramatic game — if you're in the business of advertising and try to create some excitement and you know you can win, go to three or four overtimes in one night in a full house. That creates a buzz. That creates excitement. It puts things in the paper. It puts things on the news. All that helps our program."

It will be an even more exciting time for the UW women's hockey program if it comes back to Madison Sunday with a national championship in tow.

"I think this weekend will make our program just take off," Burish said. "If we can win the national championship I think a whole new fan base will be drawn because it's going to draw tons of excitement from the city and the state and the school and just on every level… Wisconsin, I think, will really start keying in to our program."

Perhaps, if the Badgers reach the Frozen Four again next year, the players' professors will even know about it.

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