Andy Baggot: UW hockey team has more to gain than lose playing Minnesota at Soldier Field

Andy Baggot: UW hockey team has more to gain than lose playing Minnesota at Soldier Field

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The University of Wisconsin men's hockey team, which played an outdoor game at Lambeau Field in 2006 (above) and at Camp Randall in 2010, has been approached about facing Minnesota outdoors at Soldier Field in Chicago.

The last two outdoor games featuring the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team paid the same prominent dividend. Both produced a unique jolt of energy that fueled a run to the national championship game.

A triumph over Ohio State in 2006 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay seemed to steady a club that had lost four of five following an injury to standout goaltender Brian Elliott. Two weeks later, UW embarked on an 8-1 finishing kick that included a win over Boston College for the NCAA title in Milwaukee.

A victory over Michigan in 2010 at Camp Randall Stadium set the stage for a 12-3 stretch drive that carried the Badgers to a national championship rematch with BC in Detroit. The Eagles prevailed.

So the needle on the karma meter moves noticeably in the matter of the inaugural Hockey City Classic, a four-team event to be played Feb. 17 at Soldier Field in Chicago. UW will face Minnesota, while Notre Dame will take on Miami (Ohio) at the 61,500-seat home of the Chicago Bears.

It helps that the Badgers may well be a part of the national championship discussion in 2012-13 after consecutive seasons in which they not only failed to qualify for the 16-team NCAA tournament field, they didn't finish in the top half of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association standings.

UW coach Mike Eaves returns his full complement of forward — including junior center and leading scorer Mark Zengerle — five front-line defensemen and two goaltenders. Even with the loss of two-time All-America defenseman Justin Schultz, who bypassed his senior year to sign an NHL contract with Edmonton, the Badgers seem to have a pretty formidable cast.

From here it looks as if the rewards associated with this endeavor outweigh the risks for UW.

The biggest gamble won't be known for months and may not even materialize. If the Badgers and Minnesota are vying for the MacNaughton Cup, then home-ice advantage for half of a vital league series will be lost.

The teams will play at the Kohl Center on Feb. 15 then move the operation 150 miles to a foreign facility staging its first hockey match. The second game between UW and the Gophers not only will be their last regular-season meeting as WCHA members — the programs, conference rivals since 1969, will move to the new Big Ten Conference in 2013-14 — it could decide which is crowned regular-season champion three weeks later.

Two prominent pieces of information — game times and ticket prices — weren't part of a presentation Wednesday heralding the double-feature and two weeks of advance winter festivities.

Organizers clearly expect a major turnout, though, citing the fact that the four schools have large packs of alumni in Chicago and three of the participants are playing in their first modern-era outdoor games. The hope is to set the presentation bar high enough that the NHL will choose Soldier Field for a future Winter Classic game.

"I think we're going to pack this place," said Michael Kelly, the Chicago Park District superintendent and CEO. "I think this, at least for one day, will rival a Bears game."

Unlike its first two outdoor experiences, UW shouldn't be caught up in what the turnstiles say. Regardless of turnout, it will receive between $200,000 and $250,000 to recoup the lost game-day revenue.

The energizing nature of the game should be a boost for the Badgers, who don't have a weekend off after Jan. 1. That the Chicago area has become a fertile recruiting area for Eaves is another bonus.

In this case, playing outdoors — again — has more perks than problems for the Badgers.

Contact Andy Baggotat abaggot@madison.comor 608-252-6175.



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