(College) Hockey Town USA?

The University of Wisconsin hopes to lay claim to a pair of hockey national champions

MADISON — It was a good-natured ribbing and a vote of confidence rolled into one.

The evening of March 27 approximately 1,000 fans gathered at the Kohl Center to celebrate the national championship the University of Wisconsin women's hockey team had won the day before.

Following her brief speech on a makeshift stage in the arena's main concourse, Badger assistant captain Nikki Burish was asked about her brother, Adam, the captain of the UW men's hockey team.

"He's envious of our trophy," Nikki said with a smile. "He got to see the trophy last night actually. I had to keep him away from grabbing it."

After a pause to allow the crowd to roar its approval at this kind-spirited sibling banter, Nikki looked in the direction of where her brother stood among about a dozen of his teammates.

"I'm pretty sure that in two weeks I'll be in the crowd watching the men's team up here," she said.

The palpable camaraderie among the two Badger hockey teams has grown thick with jubilation in the past month, as each team built momentum for a national title run. The women's team was first to the post, with a 3-0 triumph over Minnesota in Minneapolis for the program's first-ever NCAA crown. A few hours later, Jack Skille's mesmerizing goal against Cornell gave the men's side a 1-0 triple-overtime invitation to this week's Frozen Four, at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.

At last Monday's celebration women's hockey coach Mark Johnson, one of the greatest players in the history of Badger men's hockey, showered the crowd with his emotions after winning the national championship.

"It was awesome!" he said to growing applause. "It was absolutely awesome!"

Badger hockey fans throughout the state, for the women's and men's teams, shared that sentiment.

"We certainly appreciate your support," Johnson said at the end of his speech, "and we hope the men can in two weeks do the same thing and we can gather here and do the same event."

Among the dozen or so Badger men's players who joined the celebratory crowd was defenseman Tom Gilbert.

"I've never been to a pep rally before because I've never been around championship teams," Gilbert said. "So it was exciting to know a lot of those girls and be there to see them up there, being all happy and talking about our team and giving us all support that we can do it too. It was exciting to see and exciting for our team to know that they are behind us, and they are pushing for us to win a national championship too."

The Badger men's team has practiced the past three weeks at the Shell, normally the practice-province of the women's team. So after returning from the Twin Cities the night of their national championship, the women's team cleared out its lockers at the Shell. Before the women left, they decorated the men's locker room with motivational messages.

"On the wall they wrote us all notes," Adam Burish said. "‘Men and women, 2006 national champs' and ‘Represent Wisconsin hockey.' ‘Good luck.' And all that kind of stuff they wrote on the wall in there."

"They were just as excited for us as they were for themselves," center Jake Dowell said. "We thought that was really cool that they left us little messages to go get ‘em and bring back another championship."

The synergy between the two Badger hockey programs has helped buoy excitement for the sport in the state.

"Using Eastern philosophy, it's good karma," men's head coach Mike Eaves said.

"I've talked to more people that have said they've never watched so much hockey in their life," Eaves added. "….The women started it. They were national champions, so people were sitting up and taking notice of that. We were kind of on their coattail with what we were doing. And now everybody's tuned in."

Another factor pushing the spotlight firmly upon UW college hockey is that the men's basketball team had a very brief postseason run.

"The microscope has turned up on us a little bit more," Eaves said. "So people are really excited about (hockey)."

The possibility of winning the second hockey national title for UW in two weeks has been an extra motivating factor for the men's team. The players said that they have heard from women's players prodding them on to duplicate their feat. To do so the Badgers have to overcome a impressively deep, talented Maine team in a national semifinal Thursday night, before facing off with Boston College or North Dakota in Saturday's championship game. The Frozen Four teams are a combined 25-4-2 in the past month.

"It would be a really, really exciting thing and a really cool thing for us to be able to do," Dowell said of the potential for dual titles. "It definitely adds to the excitement. We just need to take it one game at a time. Look at the smaller picture — and that's Maine — before we look at that big picture of winning the national championship."

For the men's team, witnessing the women's hockey team's national championship celebration simply whet the appetite for what they too can accomplish.

"You just see that when you bring a championship team into Madison, this city explodes," Adam Burish said. "You can imagine how it's going to happen if we're able to bring back what they did. It's going to be amazing. I want to have that feeling where we walk into that Kohl Center and the band's playing and all the students are cheering, ‘We're No. 1.'

"I can't wait to have a pep rally of our own."

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