Wisconsin women's hockey: Ilana Friedman talks Badger hockey, life as an out athlete

Ilana Friedman (center), her mom, Lisa, and Bucky Badger on Wisconsin's senior night. - David Stluka

Despite seeing limited playing time, the senior goaltender has a valuable perspective on Wisconsin women's hockey.

Senior Ilana Friedman has no stats on the books as a Wisconsin Badger. A Middleton, Wis., native, she spent her freshman year at Vermont before transferring to UW-Madison. She dressed for every game her sophomore season, though she never saw ice time. She hasn’t been on the bench since then.

Despite being relegated to fourth-string goaltender, Friedman continues to get up early every morning to be at every weight room session, film breakdown and on-ice practice. To hear her tell it, not only is she there, but she’s the most amped up of her teammates, running around and motivating the rest of them to get up and moving. She calls it fun.

All the work and none of the glory - not even a skate on the ice or a chance to slide on a jersey or a pad? Few adults would put themselves through the grueling effort that it takes to find the very difficult balance between the educational side of being a student and the physical side of being an athlete on one of the country's top women’s hockey teams.

So my reason for interviewing Friedman in the first place was to simply ask her, "Why?" Or perhaps better-put, "What’s in it for her?"

The answer, of course, is far from simple.

On a basic level, Friedman says she might be a little bit crazy. She admits willingly getting up at 6 a.m. to work out makes her kind of nuts and then add that she loves to work out.

She makes a lot of her answers seem as though they are simple and straightforward -- that they are a given. Anyone who knows her or has been a college student knows that the sort of drive she possesses and that continuously shines through her actions are not standard issue among college seniors.

Friedman credits a lot of her commitment to her mom, who is a physician but was born without her left arm. She says that her mom never allowed her to make excuses, and it’s clear that life lesson stuck.

"A lot of who I am is shaped because of her," said Friedman. "Hard work was preached to me at a very young age. That was the one thing I could not sacrifice was hard work, because that’s the one thing you control. Attitude is the one thing you control. So that was something that I still use every day."

For Friedman, it comes down to working hard, setting a good example and leading by that example, motivating her teammates and being proud of the honor of being part of the Wisconsin athletic tradition.

That strong sense of self and desire to be an active and impactful part in the improvement of others’ lives extends beyond the playing surface. She’s vocal on Twitter about causes that are important to her.

One of those is the You Can Play project. As an out athlete, Friedman said that she is very lucky to have the support of her teammates, but she knows that other athletes don’t always have that same support.

"There’s always one person that’s always going to have to knock that door down or have to crack a hole, and that might as well be me." -Ilana Friedman

"At the end of the day, it all goes back to the fact that we’re trying to raise another banner and you know if I can support people, whether it’s gay, straight, whatever it is, it doesn’t really matter to me," Friedman said. "It’s a big thing with the You Can Play organization -- if you can play, you can play, and I’m just trying to get that banner in the rafters for my teammates.

"So if I can make my teammates feel a little bit more comfortable in the locker room, that’s what I’m going to try to do. ... I’ve been really fortunate to have teammates that are very accepting. There’s obviously teammates that don’t have that in other locker rooms. I’m trying to create an environment that’s the best because at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter who I date."

She said she is vocal because someone has to be.

"There’s always one person that’s always going to have to knock that door down or have to crack a hole, and that might as well be me. If I can make a little progress in Badger athletics then great, that’s awesome. Because it’ll make it a little easier for the person behind or the person behind them. I’ve always tried to work hard at working hard."

About halfway through our interview, I stopped Friedman and told her that I thought there would be people that wouldn’t believe her because her answers all sound too perfect -- I told her she sounded like she was saying all the right things and people would still be wondering what makes a college senior put in all this effort for no pay-off.

"My question to that is, number one, ‘why not?’" she said. "The other part to the equation is that statistics show that 95 percent of the kids that pick up a hockey stick aren’t ever going to get to this level -- so why should they pick up the hockey stick?"

And in two sentences, Friedman makes it very simple all over again.

"I just love the game. If I can continue playing a game and be here, why wouldn’t I do that?"

Despite passing over the chance in the beginning, Friedman takes the opportunity to represent Wisconsin to heart. She remembers being a fan and she cherishes the fact that she was able to live so many children’s dreams.

"I’ve had three times in my life that I’ve gotten the chills," she said. "The first one was when I was at my first Packer game, the second one was when I skated the first time out on the Kohl [Center] my first year at Wisconsin and the other time was during Fill the Bowl that year against Bemidji. This is the coolest thing."

We spoke as the Badgers were preparing to face Minnesota, the top-ranked team in the country, in the Fill the Bowl game Feb. 15, and she spoke about having the opportunity to be sitting where we were. Without wanting to devalue other programs, we both acknowledged that at most, any young girl looking to play hockey in this country is working to be playing on one of the two teams to hit the ice that night.

"You’re kidding yourself if you don’t think that," Friedman said. "To play in the WCHA is one thing. And to play at either Minnesota or Wisconsin -- yeah, I’m going to jump at that opportunity."

Having grown up in the Madison area, Friedman admits that while she now knows she was "born to be a Badger" she didn’t actually apply to Wisconsin in high school.

Like many high school kids, she wanted to get away from all that was familiar. But her desire to play hockey at a different program went beyond an 18-year-old's desire to move away from her parents.

"I actually graduated high school and I didn’t apply to Madison because I knew that I wanted to get out," Friedman said. "But there was also this thing that was like, ‘I want to make a legacy somewhere else because Badger athletics already has their legacy."

Being a goalie means limiting your school choices to rosters that have a need at that position, but Friedman says Vermont was her first school visit and she loved it. She loved the similarities between Burlington and Madison, and felt she had found a place to make her mark.

The transition wasn’t as smooth as she would've liked. Injuries and two recurrences of mono brought her back to Madison. But she chose to look at the change in her plans as an opportunity.

"It was a tough decision to leave," Friedman said. "I made a lot of really good friends. I’m definitely glad I went out there for the time I was out there. And then I came back here and I mean, I was born a Badger. There’s no other way to put it. I bleed red. I just knew what it meant to be a Badger. I knew how cool it was. We had season tickets to the men’s team forever. I grew up on that side of the glass.

"My sports moments, when I was little, were associated with Badger athletics."

Unfortunately for her, as Friedman was looking to join the Badger women’s hockey team, Alex Rigsby was cementing the beginning of her legacy, having a stellar Frozen Four and helping to lead Wisconsin to a national championship in 2011. Friedman came into the 2011-12 season with the starting position clear and two other goalies on the roster, but she said she knew what the situation was when she transferred.

"I knew the role I was going to be in," Friedman said. "I knew what hockey meant to the community and so if I got the opportunity to play here or to have any role on the team, I was going to jump at it."

The hockey community in Wisconsin is still small and tight-knit. In many ways, it was more so a dozen years ago when many of the women that have gone through the Wisconsin women’s program recently were among a select handful of girls playing on boys teams. Friedman’s transition to the Badger team was eased by her familiarity with Alex Rigsby and Kelly Jaminski, as well as former Badgers Laura Unser and Brianna Decker.

Friedman also says that familiarity with Rigsby made missing out on a chance at starting more palatable for her.

"It sort of made it easier, I guess, just because it was better for the goalie to be frickin’ awesome that was starting in front of me, than someone I was kind of unsure about how great they were." -Ilana Friedman

"I knew how great of a goalie she was," Friedman said. "It sort of made it easier, I guess, just because it was better for the goalie to be frickin’ awesome that was starting in front of me, than someone I was kind of unsure about how great they were. [Rigsby] and I have always had a great relationship. ... She’s an awesome person, so it made it a lot easier. We support each other through thick and thin. So it made it a little bit easier knowing that Rigs was a great person."

Rigsby said, "Ilana has a unique role to our team and does such a great job fulfilling it. She always comes to the rink with a smile on her face and has a positive impact on everyone. Overall, she is an incredible teammate and awesome goalie partner"

Instead of taking the lack of ice time as a disappointment or building up resentment over the situation, Friedman says she looked at the situation as an opportunity few have and one that she’d been on the outside of for years.

"Coming back to Madison, I knew what the tradition of Badger hockey was. I knew what an honor and what a privilege it is to wear that 'Motion W,'" Friedman said. "To be on the other side of the glass finally was the coolest thing in the world, anyway. You know when you have someone like coach [Mark Johnson] on the ice with you every day -- I wasn’t going to be weak in that opportunity. I was going to work every day. It wasn’t something I was going to take for granted -- it doesn’t matter.

"I mean, it obviously matters. It kind of sucks that I didn’t see the playing time that I wish I would have. But I wasn’t going to be the person who was going to sit and sulk because that’s going to reflect badly on the team."

In transitioning from an on-ice role, Friedman has been given duties with stats and video with the team this year, and she said she’s relished this new opportunity. It’s a transition to more analyzing the coaching side of the game, but as a goalie, she was already attuned to watching the whole ice.

"I guess I just understand the game a lot differently," she said. "We say in the locker room every day everyone’s got a role and everyone sees the ice a little bit differently. ... I’ve studied the game. I’ve had to study the game for the past four years."

Assistant coach Jackie Friesen praised Friedman’s role as motivator and now assistant.

"Although Ilana is not always on the ice with the team, she has contributed to the team in many other ways," Friesen said. "She understands her role and is a very good teammate, always positive and encouraging the players off the ice. She has been a huge help to the coaching staff tagging video during away games. She know what it means to be a part of team and is able to use that through the strengths she has been given."

The new role is one Friedman talks about with excitement. She clearly enjoys the challenge of a new task. It also doesn’t hurt that it means she’s learning more about hockey, coaching and being student of the game from arguably one of its best teachers.

"I go to video every day. I might not be scouting the team, but I’m listening to coach and I’m listening to why he’s saying certain things," Friedman said. "Why we’re placing our players our players there. ... It’s awesome because his ego is non-existent and that’s the coolest thing because you learn so much from that. I mean, a lot of who he is -- he’s a teacher to us. He teaches us that even though he was absolutely amazing, it’s not about the name on the back on the jersey.

"That’s the No. 1 thing I’ve learned. It’s about carrying on the tradition of Wisconsin hockey and the tradition of excellence and not disappointing the people that have come before us. You don’t want to disappoint them day in and day out.To say you were coached by Mark Johnson is a pretty exclusive club."

In addressing her changing role on the team and how she viewed her opportunity to be a part of the Wisconsin women’s program, she showed an awareness on both her situation and the status of women’s hockey at Wisconsin that taught me a lot about perspective.

Whereas I often complain about the lack of attendance and attention the team gets, Friedman was effusive about the community involvement and support the team receives. Having played at a much less prominent program in Vermont, she’s even more aware of the level of both university and fan support the Badgers receive.

From equipment to facilities, women’s hockey players at Wisconsin have access to everything top-of-the-line.

While I think there should be more than 2,000 people watching these women play each game, last season only nine programs in the country averaged more than 500 spectators a game. Wisconsin’s game at Minnesota State Mankato on Feb. 21 had no reportable attendance.

"To say we have the best fans in college hockey -- people say that all the time, but it’s like no, we really do. We really have the best fans in college hockey. Statistically, we do." -Ilana Friedman

"To say we have the best fans in college hockey -- people say that all the time, but it’s like no, we really do," Friedman said. "We really have the best fans in college hockey. Statistically, we do.

"We have such support in the community. It’s amazing. I like to do community outreach. I like to do all that kind of stuff. I like to give back to the people that have afforded us -- we have great, great sponsorships. It’s awesome to see that kind of stuff. We get little posts in the locker room a lot from emails from fans that are like, ‘Thanks so much, you girls are awesome,’ and it’s like, "No, thank you guys. You’re the ones that are allowing us to do this."

"It’s phenomenal the support we have. It’s crazy. It’s really, really crazy. I played in Hockey East where attendance was a little bit lower. A lot lower. And I came here and I was like, ‘Holy buckets, this is insane.’ It’s awesome. People don’t realize how great it is to play when we have people constantly tweeting at us, ‘Get ‘em, girls.’ Wherever we go in the country, we travel well. There are frequently times we’ll go places and we have more fans than the home team, and that’s awesome. That’s so cool to have that. There’s not many girls teams that can say that they have that. It’s pretty neat."

Friedman’s effusive appreciation for both the fans and that university support is a great lesson in perspective and learning to look at something from all angles. Certainly the team and women’s sports in general could use more attention and respect, but that shouldn’t discount the positives that already exist. It’s easy to forget that.

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