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Wisconsin players buried goaltender Cami Kronish after shutting out Ohio State 1-0 for the NCAA women's championship at AMSOIL Arena. Photo by John Gilbert
Back in 1981, Mark Johnson sat at the head table for the post-game press conference at AMSOIL Arena, after coaching the Wisconsin Badgers to their seventh NCAA women’s hockey championship, and he turned introspective as he tried to “process” what had just transpired, letting his thoughts drift back to the spring of 1981 and a similar scene at the next-door DECC. Back then, Johnson had finished a stellar career playing for his dad on the University of Wisconsin’s best hockey teams ever, then starred for the 1980 U.S. Olympic “Miracle on Ice” team at Lake Placid, before venturing on to an NHL career, while his dad, the legendary “Badger Bob” Johnson guided the Badgers men to what was possibly their most surprising NCAA title. Wisconsin men’s hockey was distinctly a family affair back then, as Badger Bob led the way and his wife, Mark’s mom, Martha, sat close by clanging her signature cow bell every minute or so through every game. Mark looked directly at me in the media audience and said, “John, you remember 1981, when the ‘Back Door Badgers’ came up here and beat an outstanding Gopher team that had Neal Broten, and Aaron Broten — my close friend and roommate when we played for the New Jersey Devils — in the final. The Badgers weren’t even supposed to be here, and they won it all.” I pointed out to Mark that after the game, the Duluth police showed an amazing amount of restraint when a sea of red-clad revelers clogged Superior Street out in front of the Holiday Inn. The police might have waded in with billy clubs, but instead they calmly blocked off Superior Street from 2nd to 3rd Avenues West, and turned it over to the Badger faithful, who were rewarded when Badger Bob came out and climbed on top of a parked car to lead the celebration. “So are you going up to Superior Street and climb onto a car?” I asked Mark. “No, I’m not going to do that,” Johnson said, fondly recalling his late father, who later coached a U.S. Olympic team and led the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup triumph, beating the Minnesota North Stars in a memorable final series. “What I think I will do is take this trophy and go visit my mom. She’s not doing too well, and I think she’ll get a smile when she sees this.” Everyone in Madison must still be smiling after the Badgers came to the Frozen Four to hear everyone ask who they thought would win the title, defending champion Ohio State, or Minnesota, which stood tied with Wisconsin at seven titles each. They engaged in a fierce race for the WCHA title and the nation’s No. 1 rank, and they were the top two scoring teams in the country. All Wisconsin had to do was beat the favored Gophers in one semifinal, then beat the even more-favored Buckeyes in the final. Ohio State flushed Northeastern 3-0 in the first semifinal, and celebrated star defenseman Sophie Jaques winning the Patty Kazmaier Award as the top player in women’s college hockey. To do that, they deployed a high-tempo offense, an impressively tight defense, and goaltender Cami Kronish, who emerged after four years of anonymous back-up duty to become an overnight sensation in two games in Duluth. She yielded a goal to the Gophers, by last year’s Patty Kaz winner Taylor Heise — still appearing to be the best player in the arena all weekend — then Kronish stopped everything, and just when it appeared the Badgers couldn’t score, they scored goals by Lila Edwards at 6:32 of the third period and by Sophie Shirley 53 seconds later for a stunning 2-1 reversal. The Gophers stormed back, with the goalie pulled for a sixth attacker at the end. Madeline Wethington moved in from the left point and scored with a long rebound of another Heise blast with 1:11 remaining. That sent arguably the best-played and most exciting game of the season raging into overtime. After 16 minutes and 47 seconds of trading scoring chances, second line center Jesse Compher sent the puck to the right circle, where first line right wing Caroline Harvey arrived and blasted a shot that found the net for a 3-2 Wisconsin victory. Harvey skated in an elaborate knee-down celebration past the bench, as the Badgers poured over the boards to join in. Two days later, on Sunday afternoon, the Badgers faced Ohio State and its outstanding goaltender, Amanda Thiele, but Kronish and the Badgers never blinked. Kronish simply stopped all 31 Buckeyes shots, and while Ohio State players talked about failing to get “pucks and bodies” to the net, as per NHL television analysts’ cliche, the Badgers “settled” for one beautiful shot. Kirsten Simms, a freshman third-line center, got the puck from Claire Enright, her freshman left wing, and curled to the slot. A right-handed shooter, Simms held the puck until she spotted an open left side of the net, then drilled a 35-footer into the upper left corner, at 13:28 of the first period. Kronish had several key saves, one to stop Paetyn Levis at the crease, and another on a high-speed 2-on-1. “I remember seeing the wing breaking out of the corner of my eye,” said Kronish, a fifth-year senior from New York who never got the starting chance until Johnson made the decision to go with her earlier this season. “I knew the play was a pass, so when the pass went across, I anticipated it and luckily the shot hit my pad. It doesn’t feel like real life, and I can’t believe this is my life right now.” When the final seconds ticked away and Kronish had her prized shutout, she was not prepared for the mob scene that came at her. What did she say? “Get off me!” she laughed. “When I got up, I had a nosebleed and somebody said they thought my nose was broken.” Johnson, who went from men’s assistant to head women’s coach just in time to direct all seven Badger NCAA titles, acknowledged “This was probably the most challenging of them. We had 10 different players who were not on the team last year.” If it took a clever and creative coach to bring them together, the Badgers have the right man at the helm. Just ask his mom. NCAA men’s regions set When all the men’s college hockey tournaments were decided, the surprising — or NOT surprising — actions of the selection committee exposed the shortcomings of the PairWise system. First, a computer system is only as good as the information fed into it, and it is obvious that Big Ten forces have crammed the system with information that makes the Big Ten sound ultra-competitive, while the Twin Cities media continues to pour out information declaring the strength of the conference. Minnesota is an excellent team, or at least is a good team with exceptional individual talent. As evidence of how strong the Big Ten is, boosters point to Minnesota’s strong record, but they neglect to explain that the Gophers finished 19-4-1 while second-place Michigan was 12-10-2 — the only other team that was over .500 in the conference, and a whopping 19 points behind Minnesota. Ohio State (11-11-2), Notre Dame (10-10-4), Michigan State (10-12-2), Penn State (10-13-1) and Wisconsin (6-15) followed. That is the sign of a weak conference, not a strong one, and certainly not a superior one. In the NCHC, the top four teams — Denver, Western Michigan, Omaha and St. Cloud State were all over .500 and North Dakota finished 10-10-4 ahead of Duluth, Colorado College and Miami. And yet in the final PairWise, the Gophers lost the Big Ten playoff final to Michigan last Saturday, and was awarded one of the four regional No. 1 seeds, along with Minnesota, the No. 1 seed overall. And Penn State and Ohio State both also made the 16-team field. The NCHC is represented by Denver, St. Cloud State and Western Michigan. The selection committee put the three Minnesota-based schools in the Fargo Regional, where Minnesota State Mankato will face St. Cloud State Thursday afternoon, followed by Minnesota drawing 16th seed Canisius, which unfortunately bumped Alaska out of the field. Winners play Saturday for a slot in the Frozen Four in Tampa. At Manchester, N.H., Western Michigan faces Boston University in the afternoon game and Denver plays Cornell afterward. That may be the toughest regional of the group, and the committee — so concerned that the NCHC would once again prove its superiority by claiming too many Frozen Four spots — puts Denver and Western Michjgan, the top two NCHC teams, in one region. At Bridgeport, Conn., Ohio State meets Harvard Friday in the early game, followed by Merrimack vs. Quinnipiac, with the winners meeting Sunday. And in the fourth regional, at Allentown, Pa., Michigan Tech faces Penn State, followed by Michigan against Colgate, also a Friday-Sunday event. A couple of simple switches could have moved St. Cloud State to, say, Bridgeport, swapping sites with Harvard or Merrimack to relieve the Minnesota-flavored Fargo regional, and the same could have been done by swapping Western Michigan with, say, Colgate in Allentown. But it is what it is, and the validity will be denoted soon enough, as by Saturday the four finalists will be determined. I like Western Michigan as potentially the strongest team from the NCHC, although Denver will disagree, and I like St. Cloud State because the Huskies got on a roll by eliminating UMD in a best-of-three and then winning the NCHC Frozen Faceoff last weekend. UMD a basketball school? With both the UMD men’s and women’s hockey teams eliminated before their championship weekends, we must bow down to the fantastic job by both the Bulldogs men and women’s basketball teams, who both made it to their first-ever NCAA Elite eight, albeit at the Division II level. The women had been led all season by national player of the year Brooke Olson, but she went to the bench after 2:31 of the quarterfinal game against Assumption with two foul and all five team points, and her teammates came through with an outstanding offensive balanced and defensively solid game for a 61-41 victory Monday to reach the final foursome in the national tournament. The men, led by Drew Blair all season, found Black Hills State of Spearfish, S.D., to be a surprisingly rigid defensive outfit. Blair was practically nullified from his normal scoring feats, and the Bulldogs were eliminated Tuesday 86-68, while the women headed on to a Wednesday semifinal game.