To the NCAA, the networks and the Vegas odds makers, it was not an E-vent, like the basketball show in Atlanta. But for those to whom college hockey is a religion, last weekend's NCAA tournament in Detroit's Olympia was the true thing. Oh, there were no stunning upsets, just a couple of "almosts," and Wisconsin, as expected, won the championship. It was how Wisconsin won that produced the excitement.
On Friday night the Badgers rallied to defeat stubborn New Hampshire 4-3 in overtime. Then on Saturday night, playing before more spectators (14,357) than had watched the NHL's inept Red Wings in any game in the Olympia this season, Wisconsin won the title in another overtime chiller, a 6-5 defeat of Michigan. As the Badgers celebrated in the dressing room, Red Wings General Manager Ted Lindsay arrived to congratulate Coach Bob Johnson. Said Lindsay, "That's the best team that's been in this room all year."
A morgue during Red Wings games, the Olympia rocked with Badger vibes both nights. Dressed up like radishes with their red-and-white T shirts and beanies, Badger fanatics made up at least half the crowd for Wisconsin's games and made all the noise. They tormented opposing goaltenders by shouting "Sieve! Sieve! Sieve!" after every Wisconsin score. They rarely stopped chanting their fight song—"When you've said Wisconsin, you've said it all." They relieved the souvenir hawkers of all Badger paraphernalia, and they plastered the Olympia with red-and-white signs. When Wisconsin played New Hampshire, there were 58 Wisconsin banners draped about the building—and only one for New Hampshire. The Badger-niks so overwhelmed two hotels that one couple at the Sheraton-Southfield demanded accommodations elsewhere—with a guarantee that no one from Wisconsin be allowed to register there.
The noisemakers anticipated all along that Wisconsin would win its first NCAA title since 1973. Boston University and New Hampshire? Eastern teams had won the NCAAs only six times in 29 years, and none had made it into the finals since 1972. Michigan? After losing to the Wolverines in the season opener back in October, Wisconsin had beaten Michigan five straight times.
Michigan opened the tournament by beating BU 6-4 but needed four cheap goals and a questionable referee's call—for too many BU players on the ice—to do it. The following night, supposedly overmatched New Hampshire shut off Wisconsin's vaunted power play and led 3-2 with less than nine minutes to go before losing in overtime.
The tension and grind of that game no doubt took its toll on Wisconsin in the finals. "We flew for about a period," said Johnson, "then you could see us gasping for breath." What had been a safe 5-2 third-period Wisconsin lead suddenly became 5-5 and overtime—and Michigan was flying. But just 13 seconds into sudden death, Badger Winger Tom Ulseth swept in for a stuff shot. It was blocked, but the rebound came out to Tri-Captain Steve Alley who rammed it past Goaltender Rick Palmer. "Great teams know how to win games like these," said Johnson, "and this is a great team."
Although Wisconsin was coming off a dismal 12-24-2 season, the Badger players thought back in October that they had a good chance to win the national championship. Last season Johnson took a sabbatical to coach the U.S. Olympic team. Alley and star Defenseman John Taft had joined him, leaving the Badgers bereft of their main men. In addition, Mark Johnson, the coach's son, was still a high school hotshot. They all joined forces on campus this season, during which sophomore Goaltender Julian Baretta became an All-America. This, hockey fans, is the same Julian Baretta who gets to his net each period by skating backward through a lineup of his teammates, and sings Penny Lane when the puck is at the other end of the ice.
Young Johnson played center on Wisconsin's second line and scored 36 goals, joining nine other forwards in double figures. Moreover, he became a key figure in the destructive power play that helped the Badgers to a 37-7-1 season.
New Hampshire, in fact, was the first Wisconsin opponent to survive four straight power plays without yielding a goal. In 45 games, Wisconsin had scored 93 power-play goals, converting 40% of its opportunities. Remarkably, everyone on the power-play unit was born in the U.S. Up front, Johnson had Alley, a native of Anoka, Minn., who had 31 goals at left wing; Mike Eaves, a Denver-born center, who had 81 points; and Mark Johnson, who played at the top of the right face-off circle. Back at the points were Taft and Craig Norwich.
"We just seem to be a perfect combination," says Norwich, a junior from Edina, Minn. He is the best rushing defenseman in college hockey, a strong-skating, gambling stickhandler who had 18 goals and 65 assists. Where Norwich is smallish (5'11", 170) and flashy, Taft, born in Minneapolis, is rangy (6'1", 185) and consistent. Taft has spent his last five years playing for Johnson, including the year he spent as the captain of the Olympic team. Norwich and Taft played against each other in high school, and while they have contrasting styles, they both do one thing exceptionally well—pass the puck. "Since what we do on the power play is basically what a quarterback does, our power play is built around our ability to move the puck," says Norwich. "And we're such good friends and have such tremendous communication, we just seem to work perfectly together. It's too bad we won't be able to play together forever."