Mar. 26—Before his first game as the Wisconsin men’s hockey captain, Ty Emberson sat down with his teammates to mark down clear goals.
The Badgers were coming off a disappointing 14-20-2 season, sealing the first run of three straight losing campaigns in the history of the program. But the former Eau Claire Memorial Old Abe and his fellow Badgers weren’t shying away from lofty expectations for this year. There was clear talent on the team, even with a frustrating 2019-20 showing. It was time to bring Wisconsin hockey back to its former glory.
As the season went along, the Badgers proved they weren’t being overly optimistic.
“We just started to check things off,” Emberson said.
Among the most ambitious benchmarks were winning a Big Ten regular season championship and bringing Wisconsin back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years. They accomplished the first with four points to spare in the standings, and last week learned they did more than enough to secure an NCAA berth. The Badgers are a No. 1 seed in their region, and the No. 4 seed overall, heading into Friday afternoon’s tournament opener against Bemidji State.
“Coming off a year like they had last year where it was a little below what they expected, to come out this year and exceed expectations, completely flip the script, it’s felt special the entire time,” said North grad Sam Stange, who has also been a cog in this UW resurgence.
Wisconsin did not accomplish all its goals — notably falling to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament championship. But perhaps that keeps the Badgers hungry.
“That wasn’t able to happen, but it humbled us going into the NCAAs,” Emberson said. “I think everyone’s ready to go. We’re ready to check something else off.”
Ask those around the Badger program, and its clear Emberson has played a role in the turnaround. The Arizona Coyotes draft pick was named the Badgers captain in May, an honor Wisconsin coach Tony Granato said was a long time coming.
“He took on a tremendous leadership (role) even before he was named captain to try and keep the morale of our team up because we were coming off a disappointing year,” Granato said. “When you have high expectations like we did last year and it’s a failure, you need somebody in the room that you can trust, that’s going to find bright spots and lessons to be learned from what happened last year that we’d be able to apply moving forward.”
“Without him, without his leadership, it would have been really difficult for our team to do, and for our coaching staff,” Granato continued. “I think that’s the greatest compliment you could give to a player. He understands and is willing to take on a role like we need. From a captaincy point, he’s everything that you could ever want in your captain.”
Wisconsin’s leading scorer Cole Caufield, a stellar prospect for the Montreal Canadiens, said he’s seen Emberson’s voice grow louder as the season has gone along.
“I’ve learned a lot from him,” Caufield said. “He calms me down in key situations, always knows how to get me to relax. For our team, he’s been unbelievable. He’s been here long enough to know what goes on and to know our teammates and how to push the buttons on the team.”
His play has been as strong as his leadership. Emberson was an All-Big Ten first team selection and a finalist for the league’s defensive player of the year honor. He’s scored four times and has dished out eight assists in 29 games.
Stange, drafted by the Detroit Red Wings last year, is in his freshman year with the Badgers. He jumped to the college ranks after just one full season of junior hockey in the United States Hockey League.
“It’s pretty different in almost every way,” Stange said. “Obviously it’s still hockey, but it’s a different style. You’re going from pretty much guys that are your age or pretty close to it to guys who are four or even more years older than you. The physical stuff was a big step last year but it’s even more so this year. The mental game, knowing where to be and what works, it’s kind of been a process to figure that out.”
He’s playing a far different role than he’s been used to pretty much his entire career, going from a face-of-the-team type talent with the Huskies to a role player as a college underclassman. That’s taken some getting used to, but Granato is happy with the results so far.
“Sam’s just a solid, strong, power forward type of player that plays the game the right way,” Granato said. “He doesn’t put you in penalty problems by running guys over or being stupid. He plays extremely smart for a young player. I think he’s continuing to grow as a player, gaining some confidence.”
Stange has scored six goals and notched an assist in 28 games this season. He scored his first collegiate playoff goal in the Big Ten semifinals, continuing a streak of success against Penn State this season.
“It had been a long time since I had even been a part of a goal, so to get that first one in the playoffs and get confidence, get a lead in that game, it was pretty cool,” Stange said.
Wisconsin, playing in a regional in Bridgeport, Conn., meets a Bemidji State team that finished fourth in the WCHA and boasts a 15-9-3 record. The Badgers, making their 26th NCAA Tournament appearance in program history, are 6-0-1 all time against the Beavers.
Emberson said the team did not have expectations when it came to how they’d be seeded. He’s just focused on winning.
“It’s a 16-team tournament, so you’ve got to win four games to win the whole thing,” Emberson said. “So we didn’t have too many expectations. Whoever we play, we play. I think we’re all just excited to see our name up there.”
Win, and Wisconsin will meet the victor of UMass and Lake Superior State’s regional semifinal on Saturday.
“Obviously we wish it was different circumstances, that we could have our fans there and everything,” Stange said. “But at least they are able to watch still and see a little success.”