MADISON, Wis. — During his well-publicized and controversial run as governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker was not above taking a shot at his neighbor to the west, and Minnesota’s moniker as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.”

On more than one occasion, Walker remarked that Wisconsin actually has 15,000 inland lakes. “And all of ours have fish,” he would say, with a smirk.

According to commonly-accepted stats, Minnesota has 15,291 natural lakes, while Wisconsin has 15,074, meaning Minnesota can claim the title of most lakes in the continental United States. Although with typical Minnesota modesty, they round it down to 10,000 for the license plate. Both Midwestern neighbors are considerable distance behind first place Alaska, which has three million lakes.

In any case, both fishing and hockey are considerable parts of the culture in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where they are rivals on the ice and on the water, with the debate raging about which state has the best hockey and the best fishing. Mark Osiecki is a native Minnesotan who has made his name and his career in Wisconsin hockey, and has found a unique way to incorporate his off-season love for fishing in a popular event to benefit children.

On Saturday, May 22, Osiecki’s annual fishing tournament, dubbed “Casting for Kids” will launch on the many lakes in and around Wisconsin’s capitol city. Madison, which is also home of the Wisconsin Badgers, has five prominent lakes right in town, meaning that Badger hockey players can walk just a few blocks from their home rink and haul in a lunker if they have the right bait and some luck.

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Osiecki, who is the associate head coach of the Badgers men’s hockey team, grew up in Burnsville, Minn., where he played a big role in that community’s 1980s hockey dynasty. Between 1983 and 1987, Burnsville (then known as the Braves) played in four state title games in five years, winning the state’s one-class championship in 1985 and 1986. Playing for his father, Tom, who coached the Braves, Mark Osiecki was a standout puck-moving and shot-blocking defenseman.

From the Twin Cities suburbs, he made his way to Wisconsin and was an important player on the Badgers’ 1990 national championship team. After 93 NHL games for a quartet of teams (including five games for the Minnesota North Stars in their final season in Bloomington), Osiecki got into coaching, spending time in the USHL and AHL, working as an assistant coach on national championship teams at North Dakota in 1997 and Wisconsin in 2006, and served as the head coach at Ohio State from 2010-13. He returned to his alma mater to work as an assistant for Tony Granato in 2017 and has been with the Badgers since then.

Former Wisconsin Badgers standout and current Dallas Stars forward Joe Pavelski (left) fished with a pro guide during the 2019 Casting for Kids fishing tournament near Madison, Wis. Submitted photo
Former Wisconsin Badgers standout and current Dallas Stars forward Joe Pavelski (left) fished with a pro guide during the 2019 Casting for Kids fishing tournament near Madison, Wis. Submitted photo

Grandfather was big fishing influence

In addition to growing up with a passion for hockey fueled by his father, Osiecki got an enduring love for fishing from his grandfather, Marty Rossini, who was a renowned football and hockey coach at Hamline University and in the St. Paul schools.

“My grandfather was a huge, huge fisherman, so I ended up going up north and fishing with him a lot in the summers,” Osiecki said, recalling countless trips to Hackensack and the Leech Lake area of northern Minnesota. “That’s really where the passion started coming. As a young kid, your grandpa is going to be your idol, so through him, I really fell in love with fishing.”

As a teen, there was a legendary trip Mark and his younger brother, Matt, made into Minneapolis, holding a canoe on the roof of their car for a trip to Lake Harriet. There, with two fishing poles, no net and not even a set of pliers, they landed a muskie.

Living and working in Wisconsin for much of his professional life, Osiecki eventually bought a lake home near Eagle River, Wis., which is a renowned muskie fishing area of the state. His social media timeline is as likely to have a shot of a catch-and-release fish as recounting the celebration of the Badgers’ Big Ten title last season.

In some ways, the nightmare of the pandemic gave way to a dream season for the Badgers, who won the conference regular season title for the first time in the modern era of Badgers hockey by a tiny percentage over the Minnesota Gophers. That triumph came just months after the Badgers could barely field a full team for some games, as COVID made its way through the Wisconsin locker room.

Despite falling to the Gophers in the Big Ten playoff title game, and going one-and-done versus Bemidji State in the NCAA tournament, Wisconsin did claim the program’s second Hobey Baker Award winner in Cole Caufield, who has had an immediate NHL impact for the Montreal Canadiens.

A state champion at Burnsville, Minn., and a national champion player for Wisconsin, Mark Osiecki has been an assistant coach with the Badgers in two different stints and is a former Ohio State head coach. Greg Anderson / Wisconsin Athletics photo.
A state champion at Burnsville, Minn., and a national champion player for Wisconsin, Mark Osiecki has been an assistant coach with the Badgers in two different stints and is a former Ohio State head coach. Greg Anderson / Wisconsin Athletics photo.

Quick turnaround on event

Osiecki said that even in a strange season like this one, there is a growing passion for Badgers hockey, and the generations-old rivalry with the Gophers.

“So many people didn’t have the opportunity to feel that excitement in person, but then you talk to people and they say, ‘we all watched it on TV over and over,’” Osiecki said. “Some people watched more Big Ten hockey than ever, and hopefully that will continue. Us and Minnesota need to be doing what we’re doing because that rivalry is hockey, and those two programs get the excitement going.”

As a frequent guest on a Wisconsin outdoors radio show a few years back, Osiecki asked the hosts off-air what would go into starting a charity fishing tournament. From that seed of an idea, the event blossomed quickly.

“It’s crazy how quick it came,” Osiecki said. “It was less than six months from the first conversation to the first event, and it turned out incredibly well.”

That was four years ago. After cancelling in 2020 due to the pandemic, the on-water tournament is back in 2021. Not knowing what if any interest there would be, with the nation still recovering from what essentially was a lost year, Osiecki and other organizers capped Casting for Kids ‘21 at 60 boats. Within a matter of days, they had to expand that to 64 boats as interest was so high.

Pro fishing guides donate their time, their boats and their fishing gear to make the on-water part of the day a success. And while they are officially full, Osiecki said that if folks want to bring their own boat and compete on Saturday, they won’t be turned away. All proceeds from the tournament and the associated online auction go to the children’s cancer center at the University of Wisconsin.

A good contingent of former Badgers who are now playing in the NHL and minor league hockey often make their way back to Madison for the fishing tournament, where it is not uncommon to see men like Granato, Mark Johnson, Joe Pavelski, Brian Elliot, Chris Chelios, Craig Smith, Luke Kunin and others out on the water.

“The hockey world is incredibly humbling,” Osiecki said.