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What is happening with Wisconsin women’s hockey?

Reflecting on a season that disappeared with the wind.

David Stulka

Is it better to know the worst than to wonder? For Wisconsin, the worst came true—another season ended with a baffling loss.

The Badgers women’s hockey team met expectations this year. Heck, I had them finishing third in the country, and their final rankings had them there. With their top two goal-scorers, Annie Pankowski and Emily Clark, taking a year away due to the Olympics, the NCAA predictably had the most parity ever. This season makes a lot of sense.

Still then, why does Wisconsin’s loss to Colgate sting so much?

Hardships make or break people. Certainly, this program has seen plenty of hardship since its most recent title all the way back in 2011.

The Badgers lost to Minnesota in the finals in 2012. “Tomorrow,” they said.

Then, they failed to qualify in 2013. “Tomorrow,” they said.

Then, they lost to Minnesota in the semifinals in 2014. “Tomorrow,” they said.

Then, they lost to Minnesota in the semifinals in 2015. “Tomorrow,” they said.

Then, they lost to Minnesota in the semifinals in 2016. “Tomorrow,” they said.

Then, they finally got back to the championship game in 2017. Truly, it was the year of glory everyone expected from Wisconsin. Patty Kazmaier Award-winning goaltender Ann-Renée Desbiens had a great year, and the Badgers looked unstoppable. They faced Clarkson and outshot the Golden Knights 41–20.

And they lost.

But this time, they didn’t say, “tomorrow.” They expected this year to be treacherous. However, Wisconsin showed that heart, depth, and consistency can make up for a lack on top-end talent. The Badgers earned the country’s favor once again.

Then it happened again. Wisconsin out-shot its opponent by a million and still figured out a way to lose.

Death, taxes, and Wisconsin out-shooting its opponents in a Frozen Four loss. There’s never any convenient time for any of them. And unfortunately for the Badgers, they’ve been eliminated the past two seasons in spite of thoroughly outplaying their opponent.

Nobody to be mad at

Packers fans know the feeling. Seven years of teams picked to contend for a Super Bowl, yet finding ways to lose in the most inexplicable ways. Packers fans understandably have a lot of people to blame, and it’s quite natural for the grieving to find objects for their wrath.

Wisconsin just doesn’t have easy answers. Recruiting has only gotten stronger. The Badgers have surpassed rival Minnesota in recent years. The coaching staff is excellent. There have been no scandals. The athletes perform very well in the classroom.

Yet, it remains that the team hasn’t met all the goals they can and should achieve.

Inter-league officiating

The most frustrating aspect of the Frozen Four is the clashing styles of play between Midwestern and East Coast teams. This year was no different. WCHA teams are much more physical than the East Coast teams, and this contrast shows when they play in critical games.

Take, for example, Abby Roque. Undoubtedly the strongest player on the ice, if you crash into her, you’re going flying.

However, the refs called Roque for two critical penalties when she did nothing but stand her ground. Instead of watching what Roque actually did, they focused on the overblown reaction of Colgate players. Without these penalties, Wisconsin is in a significantly better position to win the game.

If the Badgers will continue to be penalized for legal, physical play in future Frozen Fours, they’ll need to change their style or get the NCAA to prepare refs better for inter-league play.

How much longer?

I want the old days back again and they’ll never come back, and I am haunted by the memory of them and of the world falling about my ears. How much longer can Wisconsin as a program live off of the old glory days of Knight, Decker, and Duggan? When does “four national titles!” turn into “only four national titles?”

Until you’ve lost your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was or what freedom really is. If the Badgers are no longer the single premier women’s hockey program in the country, does that free them to redefine their excellence?

Why can’t UW host a Frozen Four?

The state of Minnesota has hosted nine of the last 18 Frozen Fours. Why can’t Wisconsin hold one at, say, its state-of-the-art women’s hockey facility at LaBahn Arena?

Well, that’s because UW built LaBahn too small. It doesn’t even qualify to be considered to host a Frozen Four.

Why not renovate LaBahn to make it larger? Certainly would be reasonable given the 99+ percent attendance this season. Or, why not host it at the Kohl Center? Or perhaps at the Coliseum?

Sounds like a group of good questions for Barry.

What’s next for Wisconsin?

The good news for Wisconsin is the return of Pankowski and Clark. The news gets even better when you add a couple of freshman-of-the-year contenders in Sophie Shirley and Britta Curl.

The bad news is pretty bad. Boston College is going to be scary good as it gets a few Olympians back, as well as the return of Patty Kazmaier-winning freshman Daryl Watts. Minnesota gets players back from the Olympics.

Don’t forget a certain goalie returns to Duluth. You know, the one who won Team USA its first gold medal in 20 years?

That’s quite a burden for a program that, at best, shares the pedestal as the premier program in the nation. It’s a burden that’s for those whose shoulders are strong enough to carry it. And I believe these players and this staff have the strength to carry them.

As for me, I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think of it tomorrow. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, they’ll think of some way to get a national title back. After all, tomorrow is another day.