The University of Wisconsin men's hockey team dared to dream an ardent dream all season long. The Badgers were anything but shy in expressing their goals: they wanted to win a national championship. They wanted to win the NCAA title in their home state.
The Badgers talked about it so much, dreaming right out and in the open, that it seems all the more remarkable, like some sort of fable, that they actually accomplished their goal.
"Emotions are running high," junior center Andy Brandt said after Saturday's exhilarating 2-1 win over Boston College in the national championship game. "It's been a battle all year. I say thanks to the seniors who stuck it out from the very beginning. They definitely deserve this. This is a storybook ending for them."
A storybook ending for the seniors indeed; a senior class that, along with new head coach Mike Eaves, brought the program back from the abyss three seasons ago all the way to its first national title since 1990.
"It's just you are on top of the world," freshman center Ben Street said. "We used the analogy all year of climbing the mountain and the view from the top of the mountain is pretty sweet."
Here is the kicker: They are far from finished. Wisconsin loses five seniors, all of whom played important roles in this championship campaign. And several underclassmen could justifiably make the jump to the professional ranks. But as it stands now high-profile underclassmen such as wings Robbie Earl and Jack Skille and goalie Brian Elliott plan to return. If the Badgers keep their underclassmen, they will return 75 percent of their goal scoring, 70 percent of their assists and, most importantly, 100 percent of their goaltending.
"We've got a lot coming back," Brandt said. "Right away when I hugged Coach Eaves he said ‘This is just the start.' He said that to a couple guys. We thoroughly believe that this is a start. We give thanks to the seniors for getting it going for us and hopefully we can build off this."
The Badgers were a deep team this season. Next year they will be overflowing with talent, despite needing to replace four senior forwards and All-American defenseman Tom Gilbert.
Six players have already signed letters of intent for the 2006-07 season, including John Mitchell (6-foot-5, 195 pounds), a forward who practiced with the team this semester as a redshirt.
Three defensemen will join the team to help replace Gilbert, who was one of the nation's best college hockey players the past two seasons. His departure is a substantial loss for the blue line, but UW returns six experienced defensemen. And the next batch of recruits includes Nigel Williams (6-5, 220), who is expected to be a top 10 selection in this year's NHL Entry Draft, and his defensive partner at the U.S. National Team Develop Program, Jamie McBain (6-2, 190), another highly regarded prospect. UW will also bring in Garrett Suter (6-0, 195), who signed his letter of intent in the fall of 2004. Suter had three goals and 14 assists in 42 games with Waterloo of the United State Hockey League.
UW loses four senior forwards, including captain and first-line right wing Adam Burish, and gritty wingers Ryan MacMurchy, Nick Licari and A.J. Degenhardt. All four players brought experience and toughness to the team — traits that will be difficult to replace with new recruits.
"We have a lot of guys here," junior wing Ross Carlson said. "We have a great recruiting class coming up too. We've got a couple kids coming from USA to try and cover for Burish, you know, a MacMurchy. It's going to be hard to cover for a Nick Licari and a Degenhardt — a fourth liner that just grinds it out with you, that helped you get there. It's going to be really hard to cover for them. But we'll see what we've got to do."
There is no question that the Badgers are bringing in an extraordinary crop of forwards. In addition to Mitchell, two forwards have signed: Zach Bearson (6-2, 195) had 13 goals and 21 assists in 56 games for Waterloo; and Blake Geoffrion (6-2, 195) had 17 goals and 17 assists through 46 games with NTDP.
Three highly regarded USHL forwards are expected to sign letters of intent during the spring/summer signing period: Mike Davies (5-8, 165) and Ben Grotting (6-1, 190) of Lincoln and Aaron Bendickson (5-11, 170) of Des Moines.
Davies was third in the USHL in regular-season scoring with 71 points (28 goals, 43 assists). Bendickson had 16 goals and 14 assists, while Grotting (9-12) was seventh in the league in penalty minutes (138).
UW also has five commitments for the class of 2007-08, including forwards Sam Gagner and Kyle Turris, arguably the top two players in that class. Turris has tallied 90 points (43 goals, 47 assists) in 72 games (regular season and playoffs) for Burnaby of the British Columbia Hockey League. Gagner had 11 goals and 35 assists in 56 regular season games with Sioux City (USHL).
The outgoing seniors are convinced that the Badgers will continue to bring in high-caliber players and continue to develop championship-level teams.
"After winning a national championship like this and the job Coach (Mark) Osiecki and Kevin Patrick and Eaves do, they are going to bring in talented kids," Burish said. "I've been lucky enough to see all the recruits that come in. I get to hang out with them, see what they are like. They are going to bring in top-end guys. They are going to bring in top-end quality. This is something that I hope that they can have these guys celebrate like this every year. I think that they will because the talent and how passionate the staff is."
As excited as the Badgers should be about the freshmen of the future, the 2006 national title was won with veteran leadership. UW had loads of talented youth the two previous seasons, but it took a couple trips to the NCAA Tournament to teach this team how to be a champion.
Assuming Elliott indeed returns, the Badgers will bring back the nation's best goaltender, a player the team drew enormous amounts of confidence from.
In Skille, who has said he wants more time to mature as a player and individual before jumping to the NHL, the Badgers have a dominant goal scorer in the making.
First-line center Joe Pavelski will be among the NCAA's best players, along with linemate Earl, unless the latter signs with the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer.
The amazing thing is that even if the Badgers lose a talented underclassman like Earl it appears that the pieces are still in place for another championship run, with forwards like Carlson, Street, Jake Dowell and Andrew Joudrey and blue liners such as Jeff Likens and Kyle Klubertanz forming an impressive core.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," Street said after Saturday's national championship. "It's too good a feeling not to come back again."