Mark Johnson can’t believe it, but it’s not even October yet and the puck is already set to drop for the University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team.
“It’s Sept. 25, and we’re talking about hockey,” Johnson said immediately after taking the podium Monday at his first press conference of the year. “That’s a pretty good thing if you’re in the hockey business.”
Johnson currently sits at the top of the hockey business, coming off a national championship locked up by his team March 27, with a 3-0 victory over Border Battle rival Minnesota in the NCAA title game. The Badgers have been ranked No. 1 in the 2006-07 preseason USCHO.com poll for the second consecutive season.
But all of that, Johnson says, is either in the past or inconsequential, and his players have already come to realize the hard work and preparation ahead for the 2006-07 season.
“From what I’ve seen in the first eight or 10 days with this group, it’s a group that is very committed,” said Johnson, the 2006 AHCA Division-I Coach of the Year. “They understand what they’ve done in the past, but by the same token, they understand how they got there — what put them in position to be successful. I haven’t seen any of those things change.”
Johnson said due to the fact training camp for college hockey isn’t very long, the Badgers are making the most of about 9 or 10 practices the team will conduct before the season begins Friday.
“The first week of practice has been very encouraging, very upbeat and very exciting as far as looking forward to this upcoming season.”
THEY’RE IN GOOD SHAPE
Both the men’s and women’s hockey teams at Wisconsin won their respective national championships in the spring, and both Johnson and men’s hockey coach Mike Eaves had concerns over how their players would condition themselves over the summer.
“I think Mike [Eaves] will probably attest — as he addresses you in a short period of time as he gets started — the one question I think in the back of our minds is how would the players react over the summer in regards to having a very successful season,” Johnson explained.
According to Johnson, those worries were quickly put to rest upon the return of the Lady Badgers. Whether the Badger men succeeded in staying fit remains to be seen, but Johnson had good news to report on his women’s players, saying they exceeded expectations during their preseason physicals.
“When our kids got back on campus, the first thing we did was test them in their conditioning and strength, and some of the questions that I had in the back of my mind got answered very quickly because this group came back in very good shape.”
BAUER BACK AGAIN
The Badgers’ success was due largely to senior sniper Sara Bauer, who won the Patty Kazmeier Award last year as college hockey’s top women’s player in the 2005-06 campaign.
Bauer led Wisconsin with 58 points on the season, earning 22 goals and a team-best 36 assists in 39 games played. The forward from St. Catherines, Ontario returns to UW, according to Johnson, as the centerpiece of a team trying to win back-to-back championships.
“Any time you get a player of her magnitude back, you know it’s certainly going to help,” Johnson said of Bauer, who has been named assistant captain for the second season in a row.
The 5-foot-3-inch Bauer became the first Badger in history to bring the Kazmeier trophy to Madison, Wis., something that Johnson said she takes great pride in.
“She certainly understands it was a unique opportunity for her to put herself in that position,” Johnson said. “But at the same time, she’s a very intelligent young lady and understands what it took to get to that point.
“She came back in great shape, very excited for her senior year.”
In the 2005-06 season, no Wisconsin goaltender started less than 10 games or started more than 20 games. Three Badgers split up time between the pipes, which made things difficult for opposing teams in preparing for one particular netminder.
With Meghan Horras gone to graduation, senior Christine Dufour and sophomore Jessie Vetter look to carry more minutes in the upcoming year, but Johnson said there still will not be one definitive starter throughout the fall and winter.
“We’ve got confidence in both of them,” Johnson said. “So we’ll use both goaltenders early on, and hopefully both can play as well as they have in the past.”
Dufour has longevity and experience on her side, participating in at least 10 games over the past three seasons — totaling 36 games in all. Dufour has also crafted an impressive record of 29-5-1 in her career.
But Vetter, a hometown favorite from Cottage Grove, Wis., won 11 of 12 decisions in her first year, capping the magical freshman season by earning the Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player honor in leading the Badgers to the title throughout the playoffs.
Johnson says he will be giving plenty of opportunities to both his goaltenders, who have both shown a great amount of capability to lead the defending champions.
“Christine has had three very good seasons with us,” Johnson said. “And obviously, what Jessie did the second half of last year, boosts a lot of opportunities for her to continue with her success.”
It should be noted that freshman Alannah McCready rounds out the threesome of UW goaltenders, and judging from Johnson’s system, could end up playing a factor as well.