The unsung dominance of Badger women’s hockey

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons.) 

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MICROTONES by Loren Sommer, contributor

In sports, it can be easy to dominate on any given night but extraordinarily difficult to stack up a long-term record of success. The University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team, ranked #2 in the country, has done just that. As the team nears the tail end of its regular season, it currently sits at 26-4-0, with sights set on another NCAA championship. The current team is led by Annie Pankowski, who has racked up 16 goals and 18 assists this season; Sophie Shirley (17 goals, 14 assists); and Britta Curl (16 goals, 10 assists).


UW women’s hockey coach Mark Johnson boasts an astounding overall record of 485 wins, 90 losses, and 80 ties. That’s an .843 winning percentage. In fact, the team’s kick-ass dominance as of late (and by “of late” I mean over the past 20 years) has made single-game tickets hard to get. I couldn’t even get a first-hand take for this story and experience the game from the cozy confines of the 2,273-seat LaBahn Arena. (Doesn’t this team deserve a bigger hometown venue?) Even so, I wanted to highlight not only the tremendous success of the program, but why more people should care and pay attention to what is an unsung powerhouse of Wisconsin sports.  

The Badgers women’s hockey team’s success dates back all the way from its inception in 1999. The team has never had a losing record in its history, but the program really took off two years after Johnson came aboard in 2002, and has qualified for the NCAA tournament every season since except for 2012-13.

If you’re not particularly familiar with hockey history, Mark Johnson is one of the most famous sports personas to emerge out of Wisconsin. The son of legendary UW men’s hockey coach Bob Johnson (who led his teams to national championships in 1973, ’77, ’81 as well as a Stanley Cup in the one year he coached the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990-91 before his death in ’91), Mark attended James Madison Memorial High School, where hockey became the focal point of his life. He played under his father and was the conference’s rookie of the year in 1976-77, helping the Badger men’s team win the NCAA championship that season. As if that weren’t enough, his real claim to fame came from playing for Team USA, starting in 1976 as an 18-year-old, up until 1990. In 1980, he was an integral part of the famous Miracle on Ice game (maybe you’ve seen the Disney movie based on the game, Miracle, starring Kurt Russell), in which he scored two goals, and one famous one against Vladislav Tretiak (at the time considered the world’s best goalie) and helped Team USA defeat the evil hockey Soviets. He also played in the NHL, with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Minnesota North Stars, Hartford Whalers, St. Louis Blues, and New Jersey Devils before retiring in 1992. Oh, and he also came out of retirement briefly in 1998 to play for Team USA at age 41. All that is to say, not a horrible legacy. To add to that, Johnson had his #10 jersey retired before the team’s February 9 match against Ohio State.

So when Johnson signed on in 2002 to become the UW women’s hockey coach, it seemed like a perfect match. By 2005-06, the Badgers won a then-school record 36 games on their way to their first NCAA championship, before later winning 37 in 2010-11 and winning four championships between 2006-2011. They even repeated in 2007 as champions, winning in Lake Placid, New York—also the site of the Miracle on Ice game. It’s no surprise the program’s top three scorers (forwards Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker and Meghan Duggan) all played under Johnson during that time, and are all US Olympians. Nowadays, Pankowski currently sits sixth all-time in scoring.

While the state’s sports hive mind has plenty to celebrate with the recent successes of the Milwaukee Bucks, Brewers and UW women’s volleyball, football and basketball programs, we should also recognize the shining talent present in the UW women’s hockey program. Now go watch Miracle, or Slapshot, or Slapshot 2, or better yet, make friends with season ticket holders and get out to a game if you can, since the team’s last two home games, on February 22 and 23, both against Ohio State, are sold out.

Loren Sommer last wrote for Tone Madison about that rough Packers season.


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