MADISON, Wis. — The Big Ten logo has been in the ice behind the goals at the Kohl Center for many months now.
Wisconsin fans could have been forgiven for not noticing.
Of the Badgers’ first six home series, only one was against a team from its new league, and it was Penn State, the newest Division I NCAA hockey member, that was the first Big Ten opponent.
Even Badgers coach Mike Eaves was saying this week that this whole Big Ten thing still doesn’t quite feel real.
It hasn’t helped that the conference schedule was backloaded — entering Friday, only eight of the 60 league games on the schedule had been played.
Maybe it wasn’t the best way to introduce Big Ten hockey to the masses, but that might start to change with what is happening this weekend.
For the first time, all six Big Ten teams are playing conference games on the same weekend. In Madison, Wisconsin and Michigan started a series for the first time since they were both in the WCHA in 1981; each time they had met since, it was a single game.
For both the Badgers and the Wolverines, Friday’s 5-2 Wisconsin win was the equivalent of starting the Big Ten snowball down the hill. Wisconsin plays its last 16 regular season games in conference play. For Michigan, it’s 18 straight and 19 in a row against conference teams when you include the loss to Michigan State in the Great Lakes Invitational third-place game on Dec. 28.
Minnesota has a pair of nonconference games left and Penn State has one, but otherwise it’s now all Big Ten, all the time.
For Wisconsin, that means finally going into some unfamiliar Big Ten buildings. The one conference road series the Badgers have played this season was at Minnesota, a former WCHA rival.
“It still doesn’t feel real yet,” Eaves said on Wednesday. “Now we have consecutive weekends. I think it’ll really become solidified when we get in other people’s barns. That’s tangible.”
Michigan got some of that feeling Friday.
The Wolverines hadn’t played in Madison in more than three years, and their welcome back wasn’t memorable.
“It’s a dose of reality for our team,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “This is what it’s going to be like. Obviously, the bar is higher, and I think it’s going to be great but tonight was a learning experience.”
Ohio State started its stretch of 18 straight league games to end the regular season on Friday with a 5-3 victory over Michigan State, which also plays 18 straight in the Big Ten.
Minnesota and Penn State play a Sunday-Monday series in State College, Pa., to get their runs to the finish line rolling.
For Wisconsin, Friday’s win over Michigan wasn’t the start of league play but it might as well have been considering that their other Big Ten series were buried in a first half full of nonconference play.
“It’s a real feeling. It’s here,” Badgers junior winger Matt Paape said. “We’re either going to run with it or see how things go but it’s definitely a good feeling to start off with a big-time win for us.”
In Madison on Friday, we saw that Big Ten hockey is, in fact, real. Spectacular? That we’ll have to determine in March.