Lucas at Large: 'Good evening' to UW hockey's original voice

Good evening, hockey fans ...

Every journey has a starting point -- and for thousands upon thousands of University of Wisconsin hockey fans, it all started with this simple greeting from the public address announcer at the Dane County Coliseum.

Good evening, hockey fans ...

In the beginning, Phil Mendel's salutation was as much a part of the Badger hockey tradition as the "Sieve" chant and Martha's cowbell -- Martha was the wife of UW's legendary coach Bob Johnson; the bell was a rallying point for the "banshees'' and a  staple of the "Coliseum experience.''

Good evening, hockey fans ...

By his own admission, Mendel was not much of a hockey player, having never laced up the skates for the varsity team at Shorewood High School in Milwaukee, where he was born and raised. But the sport was a passion; as it was with his good friend, John Riley.

"I was practicing pharmacy in the Park Motor Inn,'' reminisced Mendel, a decorated grad from the UW School of Pharmacy, "and John would come in for coffee and we would shoot the breeze.''

One day, Riley came in with the idea of reviving the hockey program at Wisconsin. It would be a collaborative effort, Mendel recalled, with Riley, UW athletic director Ivy Williamson and Blue Line Club founder Fenton Kelsey all taking risks.

The timing was ripe for a hockey rebirth because the school was looking to support another sport after boxing was dropped in 1960 following the death of boxer Charlie Mohr.

Hockey had some history on the Madison campus, dating back to 1922 when the Badgers fielded a team in the Western Intercollegiate Hockey League (WIHL), which also included entries from the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota.

Because of the economic crunch during the Depression, however, Wisconsin was forced to drop hockey as an intercollegiate sport in 1933, even though the Badgers continued to compete for several more years in the WIHL before finally disbanding.

Riley was determined to resurrect the sport. Kelsey provided the key building block: the rink, the Madison Ice Arena, which would later be renamed Hartmeyer Ice Arena and serve as the program's foundation before moving into the Coliseum in 1967.

Looking for someone to handle the PA announcing and the hiring of off-ice officials (goal judges, etc.), Riley turned to Mendel, who agreed to become the first "Voice'' of the Badgers in 1963.

While the nation was still mourning the death of President John Kennedy, UW played its first varsity hockey game since 1935 on Nov. 29, 1963 against St. Mary's College. Despite a loss, it was still a great day for hockey (predating Johnson's hiring in 1966). Riley and Art Thomsen were co-coaches.

Good evening, hockey fans ...

"I don't think I did it that way in the first game; I may have, but I honestly don't remember when I started saying it,'' said Mendel, whose signature ice-breaker gained immense popularity.

"I simply couldn't think of anything more succinct. It's like saying, 'He shoots, he scores.' I don't have a trademark on it. But I thought it was something the fans responded to.

"What more polite salutation can you give?''

As it evolved, the UW band, led by Michael Leckrone, returned the favor.

"When the Zamboni (piloted by the Chief, Bob Marks) left the ice before the opening faceoff,'' Mendel said, "the band used to say, 'Good evening, Phil.'''

On road games, Mendel was a color analyst and sidekick to Bob Miller on the WIBA radio broadcasts of Badgers hockey. (Later, he worked side-by-side with Paul Braun).

Yes, that Bob Miller, by the way, the Hall of Fame play-by-play voice of the Los Angeles Kings since 1973 and the owner of his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Miller and Mendel remained close friends and spoke three and four times a week on the phone.

Last week, the original voice of the Badgers -- Phil Mendel -- was silenced. He was 89.

Mendel was definitely an original, too.

His love of the spoken language was exceeded only by his love of Wisconsin hockey.

No history of this sport is complete nor may it begin without, "Good evening, hockey fans ...''
ON WISCONSIN