MEN’S HOCKEY: What happened to Wisconsin?

A decade ago, the University of Wisconsin was in the midst of a national championship season. It was churning out NHL players left and right and packing the Kohl Center.

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Attendance at a men's Wisconsin hockey game. Photo courtesy of The Capital Times.

A decade ago, the University of Wisconsin was in the midst of a national championship season. It was churning out NHL players left and right and packing the Kohl Center.

During that 2005-06 campaign, the Badgers had 11 future NHL players on the roster. They outdrew two NHL teams in average attendance, including the Chicago Blackhawks.

The atmosphere at the downtown rink was arguably the best in college hockey with three decks of students jumping, chanting and jeering the opponents.

That’s why it’s so stunning to see what has happened the past few seasons.

Wisconsin, which will come to Ralph Engelstad Arena this weekend for a two-game series (7:37 p.m. Friday, 7:07 p.m. Saturday) against longtime rival North Dakota, has taken a dramatic fall from being one of college hockey’s elite programs.


The Badgers (2-3-3) are coming off of a disastrous season, one in which it won just four of 35 games. It had the second-lowest winning percentage in all of college hockey -- lower than American International, Alabama Huntsville, Army and Brown.

All four of Wisconsin’s wins last season came in games where it was outshot.

The Badgers didn’t snap a 14-game winless streak until last weekend, when they swept Arizona State, a program one year removed from club status.

And the fans have taken notice.

So far, Wisconsin has played four home games this season. In two of them, they drew the two smallest crowds in the 18-year history of the Kohl Center. And season ticket sales are down 52 percent from just nine years ago, according to the Madison Capital Times.

How did all of this happen?

How did Wisconsin go from being a No. 1 seed a couple of years ago to toiling behind American International in men’s hockey?

It has been a combination of things.


1. Average recruiting

When assistant coach Mark Osiecki, also known for his work in developing defensemen, left in 2010 to become the head coach at Ohio State, the Badgers’ recruiting took a hit.

The last classes under Osiecki’s tenure produced several star players -- Mark Zengerle, Michael Mersch, Tyler Barnes and Jake McCabe. This core group of players helped the Badgers to the 2014 Big Ten playoff championship.

But they all left after that season and the wasn’t enough talent to keep the program at respectable levels. Wisconsin lost out on several key recruits, including in-state prospects such as Jordan Schmaltz (UND), Nick Schmaltz (UND), Ian McCoshen (Boston College), Max McCormick (Ohio State) and Will Butcher (Denver).

The recruits they did pick up haven’t all panned out.

2. Poor retention

As the Badgers have struggled, they have lost several key players and recruits.

Wisconsin’s top three recruits this season were scheduled to be first-round NHL pick Brock Boeser, goalie and fifth-round pick Luke Opilka and forward Luke Kunin, a 2016 draft eligible player.


But Boeser, whose cousin once captained the Badgers, changed his commitment to UND. Opilka left for Canadian major juniors, and there are rumors that Kunin could end up doing the same by the end of this year.

Wisconsin’s most promising defenseman from last season, Jack Dougherty,  jumped to major juniors and its third-leading scorer, Morgan Zulinick, decided to be closer to his family.

Those losses have had a major affect on the Badgers.

3. Poor roster management

Wisconsin isn’t the only school to be hit by players leaving for the pros early or to have sudden de-commits for Canadian major juniors. But it hasn’t been able to adapt to the losses.

The Badgers were short on committed forwards two years ago and had to bring in several players late. With so many elite players committing early these days, Wisconsin didn’t have a lot of options at that point. That forced the Badgers to bring in some players who weren’t ready for the Division I level yet.

The Badgers also got into a cycle, where they brought in an enormous freshman class every four years, and haven’t been able to break it. That has traditionally added up to one very good team every four years, then a rebuilding process for three.

Since winning the 2006 national title, the Badgers have missed the NCAA tournament five times in nine years. It has been six years since Wisconsin won an NCAA tournament game.


With the average recruiting, poor retention rate and poor roster management, it has added up to some horrific numbers:

  •  Wisconsin has six wins in its last 44 games.
  •  Away from the Kohl Center, Wisconsin has won one of its last 22 games.
  •  Wisconsin only scored 59 goals last season. By comparison, UND has roughly half of that number already this season.
  •  Last season, Wisconsin got beat by an average of two goals per game, worst in all of college hockey.
  •  After drawing more than 10,000 per home game annually in the Kohl Center, the Badgers are averaging only 7,239 so far this season.

Wisconsin hopes last weekend’s taste of winning against Arizona State -- the Badgers’ first sweep of a two-game series since 2013-14 -- will be a sign of things to come. But 2005-06 seems so long ago.

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at
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