Early spring leads to a spring in the fall

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Just like the weather in Wisconsin, spring came too early for UW men's hockey in 2012. It actually seemed like the Badgers were themselves reaching spring, a time for renewal, birth and growth. Their goaltending began to solidify, the penalty kill improved and the team learned how to win on the road. But like a hard freeze after unexpectedly warm March days, reality brought an end to the season, and with it came much self-reflection. That continued last week as the coaching staff conducted end-of-season player meetings.

After the abrupt end to the season, the team took a couple of weeks to regroup and returned to the weight room with an eye towards next October and the start of another Badger hockey season. The meetings are an important step in the process.

While those meetings mark the end of each year, the end of each season can feel very different. When the ultimate goal is reached and an NCAA championship won, celebration rules the day. Some seasons end with a realization that things like graduation and early departures will give great opportunities, but also likely less-than-ideal results in the coming season. And some end like the 2011-12 one, when a team is highly motivated with the knowledge that the program is on the upswing. Improved late-season play, the expected return of most of the roster and the anticipated addition of talented newcomers points to a better future ahead.

I have a vivid memory from the end of the 2004-05 season which has come to mind on the final bus or plane ride every season since. After the Badgers were thumped in the first round of the NCAA tournament by Michigan, I remember then-senior goaltender Bernd Bruckler talking with others on the team. They were all talking about how badly they wanted to get back on the ice. Even Bruckler, whose Badger career was at that point already finished. He sounded like he wanted to get back out on the ice immediately and get better, like there were still games to play. That attitude carried over into the magical 2006 NCAA championship season and surely played a major role in the result.

After 2008-09, when the Badgers missed the NCAA tournament by 0.002 in the RPI, the team had shirts made up with that number on the back. It was a reminder of the pain of missing a chance at a national championship and the team made it all the way to the 2010 NCAA championship game the next season.

The end of this season bore some similarities to the ends of the 2005 and 2009 campaigns. There was that feeling of things coming together. There felt like there was something you could almost touch with the way the team was playing and with everyone's positive attitude. Just a little more time and who knows what could have happened.

That bodes well for next hockey season. I don't know if that means it will end with a trip to Pittsburgh and the Frozen Four, but things are looking up and the future looks bright in Badger land. It will be a long offseason until Saturday, Oct. 6, when the Badgers can get back on the ice, show off the results of all their work and take out that feeling on someone else. Hope springs eternal.

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