Wisconsin hockey is a powerful brand. The men’s tradition springing from the late Badger Bob Johnson runs deep, and the fairly young women’s program has added to its luster with four national titles in a little over a decade of competition.
When it came time to support the La Bahn Arena, many University of Wisconsin-Madison hockey alumni joined with other major donors to assure that future players will have the best opportunity to add new chapters to a remarkable story.
The men’s alumni called on a championship tradition built through the years in rallying their number. A compelling case persuaded generations of men’s players to back the new space, which will move men’s practices next door to the home Kohl Center.
For the younger women’s program and its alumnae, the prospect of having an intimate home arena and saying goodbye to shifting practice locations had definite appeal.
In building support, the prime movers organized “captains’ teams” that made peer-to-peer contacts.
“It was an opportunity for the alums from all the different eras to come together in support of Badger hockey, and they all responded,” said Steve Alley (‘77 BBA, ’82 MBA BUS) founder and president of Alley Company LLC in Chicago and a member of the national championship team of 1976-77. “That’s pretty special.”
Alley headed up the men’s captains, and he said they saw the benefits right away. “Speaking on behalf of the alumni, we felt a great responsibility to the program, and I know many people were thankful to be asked and given the opportunity to be part of it,” he said. “This is a real way to energize the program, and the alumni I spoke with wanted to get on board. They really cherish their Wisconsin experience and were happy to give back something for the future of the program.”
Traveling to the Alliant Energy Center’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum for practice was wearing on the program and its reputation with recruits.
“One of the biggest issues for the program was the practice facility,” he said. “It was cumbersome to have to pack all the equipment and everything a hockey team needs and transport that to the Coliseum and back. Those hurdles were not exactly in synch with one of the best, if not the best, college hockey programs in the country.”
Theran Welsh (’84 BA L&S), a principal with SVA Certified Public Accountants SC in Madison, a member of the 1980-81 national championship team and a color commentator on Badger broadcasts for Wisconsin Public Television, was a campaign captain as well. He said practice logistics weren’t the only problem.
“Having to go out to the Coliseum was being used against us in recruiting,” he said. “A lot of our competitors have their location on campus. Players go to one place. They get to practice in the facility they actually play the games in. It was time to make the investment.”
The legacy of Badger Bob
In particular for the players who played for Badger Bob, the chance to name the Kohl Center ice in his honor also played a role.
“That really resonated with people, even non-hockey players, who were associated with him or even knew of him,” Alley said. “Bob Johnson is the absolute father of hockey in Madison and at the University of Wisconsin. He’s known all around the world as Badger Bob.
“He built a monster program, and people identify with the Wisconsin hockey tradition through Bob Johnson.”
Welsh echoed those sentiments. “Bob Johnson’s not just known in Wisconsin or college hockey or the United States and Canada,” he said. “He’s known the world over as a hockey innovator, and I felt privileged to play for him.
“You really see Bob’s image reflected on the program today. You’ve got one of the all-time greats, and one of my teammates, Mike Eaves, leading the men’s program,” Welsh said. “Bob’s son, another teammate of mine, Mark Johnson, coaches the women’s program. The amount of attention the women’s team is getting, the quality of recruits Mark is bringing in, speaks very well for both programs.
“It’s no surprise the programs are having the kind of success we have seen,” he said.
A fitting home
Karen Rickard (’04 BS CALS) played right wing starting with the second season for the women’s team in 2000. After getting her graduate degree at Ohio University, she now works in the corporate sales department for the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. She was happy to be a captain in the La Bahn Arena effort.
“My experience at Wisconsin is so hard to put into words. I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she said. “It’s something that gave me so much and so many opportunities in life. I felt it was important for me to give back.
“When they approached me about helping with the fundraising side of things, there was no question about whether I would do it,” she said. “It was an honor and a privilege to be a part of it.”
This will be a first-class building. Wisconsin is always willing to do things the right way.
When Rickard started with the program, the women’s players were putting on half their equipment in the Camp Randall Stadium women’s locker room and walking down to the Shell for practice. “Eventually we got the locker room at the Shell, and that was great, because we didn’t have to do that anymore, have people look at us walking with our gear on,” she said.
“Now, four championships later, we’re building our own facility,” she said. “There are not many programs that can say that about themselves. To be one of the people who was part of that and where it is now, it’s really cool to look back on something like that and say, ‘Hey, I was there at the start.’”
Sharon Cole (’07 BS CALS, ’11 DPM PHM), a forward and captain on the 2005-06 national championship team, is one of the younger former players to be part of the arena fundraising campaign. Now working as a pharmacist at a Madison Walgreen’s, she still has student loans from earning her graduate degree.
“I feel as though my experience with UW hockey and UW athletics enhanced me as a person and helped me to get where I am,” she said. “I gained a lot from the experiences and lessons learned through Wisconsin athletics.
“That’s why I thought it was important to give toward something that other girls and guys will be using as they make their own Wisconsin journeys. I do have student loans, but I figured my gift is just a fraction of what I’m making and is worth it to me.”
Cole said she’s excited for future Badger women’s hockey players and what they’ll experience. “The new arena will have everything in one spot, so they won’t have to be traveling between rinks,” she said. “They can go to class and then head to practice, go to games, hit the Kohl Fetzer Center for academics and have it all in one place. When you have so many things going on in those years, time is crucial. This new space will really help with that.”
The more intimate environment for home games will help the women’s team and its fans, Cole said.
“The fans will have a place to watch the games that isn’t the giant Kohl Center,” she said. “You’ll have more of an atmosphere. The games will be more fun to see, and the feeling in the arena will be completely different.”
The benefit both programs will get from La Bahn Arena is a source of pride for the hockey alumni who have made gifts.
“This will be a first-class building,” Welsh said, mentioning the training facilities and locker rooms along with the new ice surface. “Wisconsin is always willing to do things the right way.”