Current, former Badgers share journey

first_imgWith a head coach like Mark Johnson, who scored two goals in the “Miracle on Ice” game against the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics, the University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team is no stranger to international competition.In fact, over the past few years, Johnson-coached players like Erika Lawler, Molly Engstrom and Jessie Vetter have helped Team USA take home several titles at the IIHF World Women’s Championships and the Four Nations Cup.So when Johnson was picked to coach the U.S. National Olympic Team for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, it came as no surprise that the Verona native would put together a Badger-heavy team. Wisconsin is, after all, one of only three schools to have won a national championship since the NCAA Tournament began in 2001.“We were looking for the best players,” Johnson said. “The hard part about the players that are graduated from college is they don’t have many places to play. Last year, we’re fortunate that they had a residence program up in Blaine, Minn. … and it helped those players and several of them ended up making this hockey team.”Among those three, UW ranks second behind Minnesota-Duluth in total championships won with the Badgers taking home three to UMD’s four.What some fans may not have expected, however, was Johnson’s selection of a pair of current Badgers in junior Hilary Knight and senior Meghan Duggan. As a result, after leading their team to a national title in 2009, Wisconsin’s top returning scorers opted to take a year off from their studies to join Team USA.Their experience has been nothing short of extraordinary.“It’s a great feeling,” Knight said of representing her country. “Not only that, I get to play with people I looked up to when I was younger. That’s the biggest joy for me from this journey.“And then I obviously get to play with my linemate, Erika, which probably wouldn’t of happened (again) since she graduated. It’s so much fun, you can’t take any of it for granted.”One of the more unique aspects of the journey for the two current and five former Badgers was a recent stop in Madison. On Jan. 5, Johnson and Team USA were welcomed to the Kohl Center by the Wisconsin women’s hockey team for an exhibition matchup.While the game itself provided little test for the American squad (which won 9-0), the experience of returning to the Kohl Center to face current and former teammates was something none of them will forget.From the moment they arrived, the seven Wisconsin members of Team USA felt like they had returned home.That is, until they realized they had to go to the visiting locker room and bench.“It’s definitely different coming out of a different end,” Vetter said. “I was joking with the equipment manager that I was going to go to the Badger end just to be funny, but I decided against that.“It was great to be back in the Kohl Center playing in front of my family and friends. I definitely had a good time at UW playing here, so it was pretty exciting to be back.”Among the memorable moments on the night was a ceremonial faceoff featuring Lawler and current Wisconsin forward Jasmine Giles before the game began. According to Johnson, he chose Lawler to partake in the faceoff because she was the only one of seven Wisconsin players on the roster that did not start for Team USA.“I was just thrilled to be back,” Lawler said. “All the memories that it brings back and just seeing all the fans, the sea of red and everything. It was just really special for me.”It’s unclear whether it had more to do with the return of Johnson and seven current and former Badgers or the presence of Team USA in general, but the exhibition matchup on Jan. 5 saw the largest women’s hockey crowd in school history.What made the crowd unique, however, was the fact that its loyalty was nearly evenly split between the two teams on the ice.Strong plays from both squads drew huge cheers while the Wisconsin players on the Team USA roster garnered the biggest praise on the night, especially when Vetter was announced during pregame introductions.Considering current or former UW players scored three of the nine goals and Badgers assisted five of the nine goals, the fan support was not surprising.“It was funny because usually when there’s that many people there they’re really loud and you know, all Badger biased,” Lawler said. “I think tonight they didn’t really know who to cheer for. Even the power play cheer wasn’t as loud as usual.”With the return to Madison behind them, the U.S National Olympic Team has less than a month remaining before taking on China on Feb. 14 in Vancouver.While many have projected Johnson’s squad along with Canada to reach the gold medal game, the former University of Wisconsin standout insisted his focus was on the first game.“I know a lot of people are talking about Canada-U.S., but I lived a situation 30 years ago that everybody thought the Russians were going to win the gold medal back in 1980 and unfortunately funny things happened,” Johnson said. “And I know there’s several countries — Sweden, Finland and Canada as well as ourselves — that have goaltenders that can win the tournament.”For Johnson’s sake, let’s hope there is not another miracle on the ice in Vancouver.Jordan is a senior majoring in journalism and political science. Will you be watching when Team USA takes on China on Feb. 14? What’s your favorite Olympic sport? 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