Lucas at Large: Lots to be excited about for Coach Eaves

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Mike Eaves used two words - "emotional energizer'' to punctuate his thoughts on the topic. Was the UW men's hockey coach addressing A) the 13-year, $98 million contracts that Ryan Suter and Zach Parise signed with the Minnesota Wild; B) the Hockey City Classic pitting the Wisconsin Badgers and Minnesota Gophers at Chicago's historic Soldier Field in February; C) his anticipation level for the 2012-2013 season; the school's final one in the WCHA; or D) the completion of the La Bahn Arena.

In spirit alone, Eaves was speaking to "all of the above'' upon returning to his Kohl Center office Monday following his annual summer pilgrimage to Montana. While he was vacationing, two of his former pupils - Parise and Suter - scored huge NHL free agent contracts. Eaves coached Parise and Suter, who skated one season at Wisconsin before turning pro with the Nashville Predators, to gold medals in the World Under-18 Championships in 2002 and the World Junior Championship in 2004.

"I guess that I was a little surprised that they both went to the same team,'' said Eaves, a member of the Minnesota North Stars during his NHL playing days in the early '80s. "There was a little bit of a rumor about that (happening) but there were a lot of teams that had their foot in the door and really wanted them. I think it's great for Minnesota. They (the Wild) are now starting to put some fundamental pieces together and getting closer to being a championship team.''

Reflecting on Suter's growth, Eaves cited his comfort level on the ice and said "It was like, 'This is what he was meant to do.' It's like when you watch someone and right away you're drawn to him because they have this special presence. It's their control, their skill, their ability. It's like watching Celine Dion on stage. They talk about having a stage presence. Ryan Suter has this ice presence, if you will.''

The special players share many of the same defining characteristics, Eaves added. That would include another notable free agent defenseman with an "ice presence'' - Justin Schultz, who skipped his final year of eligibility at Wisconsin and recently signed with the Edmonton Oilers. "It's a young team and he can grow up with them,'' Eaves said. "He's going to have a chance to play right away.''

It has been a busy and profitable off-season free agent market for former UW players. Adam Burish has been reunited with his old teammate and roommate, Joe Pavelski, with the San Jose Sharks. Burish signed a four-year, $7.2 million deal.  "He's a piece of the puzzle that people recognize they need to have,'' Eaves said. "He's a winner. You need that type of person to accept his role and excel in it.''

So what has been Wisconsin's role in grooming so many NHL-ready players?

"People ask about that, 'What are you doing (right) there?''' Eaves said. "First of all, we've gotten top-notch young men and they have a lot of things that we don't teach. Secondly, the coaches we've had here are good teachers and played at that (pro) level and can give them insight. And we have a total program with the things we do off-ice with the strength coaches that we've had like Jim Snider.

"There are some real good things here that are being combined with their natural abilities. There are about four or five programs that have quite a few of their former players in the NHL. And we're one of them, so it does get noticed ... our formula or ideal to win at this level is about excellence. The Navy Seals have a great saying, 'The way you do anything is the way you do everything.'''

That quest for excellence extends to all corners of a successful hockey program and beyond. That quest drives Eaves, too, particularly coming off a season in which the Badgers failed to make the NCAA tournament. "We didn't get in, because we ran out of games,'' he said. "At the end of the year, we could beat anybody and nobody wanted to play us because we were coming into our own.''

Youth was served. Growing pains were plentiful. But Eaves is confident that the returning core of players learned their lessons and benefited from the orientation, however rude at times. "We knew that we were going to be young,'' Eaves said. "Then you get on the ice and you go, 'Whoa.' That's when reality hits ... (but) we started something at the end of the year and morphed into a team that believed.
   
"We're moving in the right direction.''
   
One of the highlights of the upcoming season will be Wisconsin's appearance in the Hockey City Classic that will be staged Feb. 17 at Chicago's Soldier Field. The Badgers will play Minnesota in one half of the doubleheader with Notre Dame and Miami (Ohio) matching up in the other game.
   
"It's an emotional energizer,'' Eaves said Monday.
   
Especially for two of his players who are Chicago-area products.
   
Frankie Simonelli is from Bensenville and Michael Mersch is from Park Ridge.
   
"I'm sure they're already talking to their teammates about getting extra tickets,'' Eaves said.

This will mark the third time that the Badgers have taken part in an outdoor game.

"People ask me all the time, 'Why are you doing that?''' Eaves said. "We have one of the longest seasons in college athletics. At that time of year - kind of the dog days of February - we get to do something that is unique and special to bring the energy back into the season.''
   
That energy manifests itself whenever Eaves looks out his office window at the adjacent La Bahn Arena, which will house a practice facility for the men's program and serve as home ice for the Badger women. The project has many other amenities, like new locker rooms.
 
"There's nothing like it in the country,'' he said proudly.
   
Jumping out of his chair, Eaves all but pressed his nose against the glass.

"From the very first day (of the construction), we've found ourselves doing this in the morning; just watching like a little kid might,'' he said. "Wait 'til you walk into that arena. You'll go, 'Wow. Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me?' This is the final jewel in the crown that we call this hockey program.''

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