MADISON, Wis. — As the final horn sounded Saturday night at the Kohl Center, one quick look at the standings made it easy to tell the impact top-ranked Wisconsin’s 3-1 win over fourth-ranked Minnesota had for both teams.
With an 18-2-2-2 record and 58 points in the WCHA, the Badgers now hold a nearly insurmountable lead over their conference rivals with three weekends to go in the regular season.
However, the story of the night was far greater than just the result on the ice, especially in terms of the state of women’s hockey.
A crowd of 10,668 fans, a women’s college hockey attendance record, paid to watch the festivities. That was over 8,000 more fans than the amount that witnessed the eighth-ranked Wisconsin men’s hockey team defeat host Michigan Tech on the same night, and over 1,000 more fans than paid to see Alaska-Anchorage defeat Minnesota’s men in the highest attended WCHA men’s game of the night.
That attendance figure is more evidence for the argument that there is serious interest in the sport, at least in North America.
“Tonight was a great game for the fans who got to watch two great teams competing,” Badgers captain Meghan Duggan said. “Hopefully the people here will spread the word that women’s hockey is growing.”
Part of that incredible crowd figure had to do with the capacity of Kohl Center, the one dollar admission price and the special charity distinction associated with the game (the Becker Law Office donated one dollar to the Second Harvest Food Bank for every person who purchased a ticket).
But nearly all of the paid attendees stayed through the presentation of the check after the final buzzer. That kind of support left a lasting impression even for a player like Duggan, who competed for the United States in the Olympics last year.
“It was incredible and I got the goose bumps just thinking about it,” Duggan said of playing in front of so many people. “I think for a lot of the girls on the team, we’ve never seen anything like that. … It created a great atmosphere in the building and really got us going in the game.”
Count Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson as one of the people who was extremely proud of what the night accomplished.
“The people of Madison really came out and supported what we were trying to do tonight,” Johnson said. “There are not many games, this being the first women’s college hockey game, to have over 10,000 people watch.”
The final attendance figure blew Johnson away.
“I was anticipating anywhere from 6-8,000 people and we got well past that,” Johnson said. “That’s a tribute to the people who support our program.”
But Johnson also noted that a fortunate scheduling date and strong promotion of the game helped lead to its incredible success.
“Our marketing department did a great job of getting the word out, but we were lucky with the having the Wisconsin men’s basketball team and men’s hockey team out of town for the weekend,” Johnson said. “We became the only show tonight in Madison.”
Even though his team ended up on the losing end of a 3-1 decision, Minnesota coach Brad Frost felt like the night was a special one for his players.
“It was a great experience for our players and I was kind of itching to play myself,” Frost said. “When you see a big crowd like that, whether it’s your own crowd or the opposition’s crowd, you feed off that. It felt like you were playing in a big game, which tonight was.”
Frost could tell right away that his team was in for a challenge with how fast the Badgers came out of the gates.
“Wisconsin came out tonight with really good energy, like we knew they would feeding off the big crowd,” Frost said. “They were able to get those two quick ones in the first period [by taking advantage of it].”
One player who was clearly motivated by the atmosphere was the Badgers’ Brianna Decker. The sophomore forward scored a brilliant short-handed goal six-and-a-half minutes into the first period.
“Everyone was pretty pumped up out there, whether you played two minutes or 20,” Decker said. “We came out onto the ice to the band, which we’ve had maybe once since I’ve been here. And the student section was pretty filled up, so it felt like I was playing in a men’s game.”
Wisconsin’s Hilary Knight did one better, scoring on Wisconsin’s first shift of the game just 46 seconds after the opening faceoff. Though Knight had scored a school record 98 times prior to that point, the junior forward was so excited by the goal that she jumped into the boards and went tumbling to the ice trying to celebrate it.
“I fell, which made for an interesting celebration,” said Knight, smiling after the game. “[But] you don’t get to score in front of 10,000 people all that often, so I figured I would try to celebrate it Alex Ovechkin-style. [I knew] Meghan [Duggan] would be right there to help me out.”
As another veteran of the electric atmosphere in Vancouver last February, Knight thought it was great to see this kind of environment back at home in the United States.
“It was awesome that this was in the U.S.,” Knight said. “It was doubly amazing that it was for our school as everyone here was from Wisconsin, [showing] Badgers spirit and doing all of the cheers and the chants.”
Knight credited Badgers fans for making the event a rousing success.
“The turnout tonight was an incredible,” Knight said. “But we are really fortunate to have the fans that we do here.”
However, Knight wants to see this kind of support more often, which would show the sport was truly coming of age.
“I challenge our fans to bring a similar crowd like this to every game,” Knight said. “We really fed off their energy and we were really fortunate to have them.”