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Badger hockey returns: A retrospective of the modern era's start


ON WISCONSIN <b>John Riley</b>
ON WISCONSIN
John Riley
ON WISCONSIN

Jan. 18, 2013

by Mike Lucas, UWBadgers.com

The modern era of Wisconsin hockey began with the start of the 1963-64 season, but like everything, there is a story behind the program's rebirth. Mike Lucas of UWBadgers.com lays out the timeline of those early years.

To read more from Mike Lucas about the history of Wisconsin's men's hockey program, read this week's issue of Varsity Magazine.

On March 30, 1962.
You had a number of entertainment options in the Madison area. You could go out for a Friday fish fry at Crandall’s – all you could eat for $1.05 – or you could see Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis in “Sergeants 3” at the Eastwood and Middleton theaters or you could sit home and watch “Rawhide’’ followed by “Route 66’’ and the “Twilight Zone.’’  

March 30, 1962.
Madison’s Mayer Henry E. Reynolds and two former mayors – George Forster and Harold E. Hanson – came out publicly in their strong opposition to a Monona Terrace Auditorium.

In what was the first mayoral hat trick, if you will, they declared that Monona Terrace was the wrong site, the auditorium plans were inadequate and the structure would cost too much.

“Speaking frankly,’’ the mayors spoke as one, ‘’never since its inception have we believed the Wright-designed auditorium on the Monona Terrace site would properly solve Madison’s auditorium problem. We believe that Monona site is altogether wrong.’’

For decades, it had been a Madison tradition. That is, it had always been the right thing to be in the wrong – to resist and oppose anything that might change our habits.  

Until ….

March 30, 1962.
With little fanfare, the University of Wisconsin athletic board came up with a righteous, if not risky proposal that would change the face of winter for many people – altering the way they would spend Friday and Saturday nights from November through March.

The board instructed athletic director Ivan Williamson and board chairman V.W. Meloche to take steps to organize and develop a hockey program on a freshman basis for the 1962-63 school year.

Depending on the level of interest and success in the sport, the board indicated that the hockey program could be expanded to include intercollegiate competition for the 1963-64 seasons.

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

In this context, it was only fitting that Art Thomsen, who coached the 1934-35 Badgers, was appointed as a co-coach when the sport was resurrected in the early ‘60s. During the team’s first full season in 1963-64, Thomsen shared the coaching duties with John Riley, a Madison native and longtime hockey enthusiast.

Riley recounted that 14 eager candidates showed up for the first organized team practice.

“I had kids report for hockey on figure skates and speed skates and some couldn’t stand up on them,’’ recalled Riley, a West High School product and a 1940 UW grad. “There were no tenders that first year and very few afterwards.’’

November 29, 1963.
While the nation was still mourning the death of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Badgers played their first varsity hockey game since 1935, drawing some 800 curious spectators to the Madison Ice Arena (an eastside rink which later would be renamed Hartmeyer).

The fans left on a high note, too, despite watching St. Mary’s College (Winona, Minn.) pound Wisconsin, 13-6. The Badgers got all six goals in the third period. Tom French scored twice and John Van Dyke, Ron Leszcynski, Chan Young and John Russo once each.

The UW’s opening lineup had Leszcynski centering for Jim Craig and Jim Weiss with Russo and Bob Busse on the blue line. Jim Duffy started in the nets. French, Young and Van Dyke skated on the second line with Ken Gratton and Fritz Ragatz on defense.

Despite the financial limitations, and the lack of experience on the ice, the Riley-Thomsen tag team guided the Badgers to a winning record (8-5-3) in their first season back. Overall, they averaged 596 fans, drawing 8,937 for 15 home games.

The following year, Riley took full control of the program and posted a 14-9 mark against upgraded competition. In the process, attendance tripled to 27, 949, an average of 1,644.

February 22, 1966.
A boisterous crowd of 1,213 watched the Badgers rally from a 3-0 deficit to shock heavyweight Minnesota, 5-4, in overtime at the Madison Ice Arena.

When Jim Petruzates stole the puck at the blue line and beat Gopher goalie John Lothrop for the game winner, it signaled the dawning of a new era in Wisconsin hockey.

Not only was it the first UW win over a Western Collegiate Hockey Association opponent, but it came at the expense of the Gophers and their legendary coach John Mariucci, a close friend of Riley’s.

At a Blue Line Club luncheon earlier in the day, Mariucci suggested that “it will be the start of a beautiful rivalry when Wisconsin can play Minnesota even.’’

The operative word, of course, was “even.’’ That stung.

Mariucci then told Riley that the Badgers “were about 10 years away’’ from competing at the same level with the Gophers. Riley’s response?

“The rivalry starts tonight,’’ Riley told Mariucci, “because we’re going to beat you.’’

The 14 players who had a hand in the break-through victory were Petruzates, Russo, Young, Leszcynski, Mike Riley, Tom Obrodovich, Jeff Carlson, Don Addison, John Moran, Gary Johnson, Chuck Kennedy, Dick Keeley, Charles Ellis and Tony Metro.

Riley was able to keep his word to Mariucci largely because of Petruzates and Kennedy, who scored twice, and goaltender Gary Johnson, who had over 30 saves against the Gophers.

“Minnesota was stunned and that is understandable,’’ Monte McCormick wrote in the Wisconsin State Journal. “Here were a bunch of kids who didn’t measure up to them, except in heart and they accomplished the impossible.

“The one exception is Gary Johnson, who must be considered one of the great college goalies in the nation.’’

Riley certainly would not dispute that assessment of Johnson, who hailed from Roseau, Minn, and fashioned a 3.84 goals-against-average in 68 career appearances for the Badgers (1964-67).

The win over Minnesota brought credibility to Johnson and new-found respect to Badger hockey prompting Riley to say of his players, “No kids have more heart and pride and because of that they beat teams that they had no business being on the same ice with.’’

April 1, 1966.
Ivy Williamson announced that Colorado College head coach Bob Johnson would replace Riley, who had been serving on a part-time, interim basis. Riley stepped down and returned to the private sector to practice law in Madison.

The 35-year-old Johnson, who had an overall record of 29-51-3 during his three seasons with the Tigers, had been undefeated (4-0) against Riley.

“Wisconsin has made tremendous improvements in the three years it has had hockey,’’ said Johnson, whose first-year salary was $13,000. “The Badgers were about four or five goals better this year than a year ago and they showed they were pretty darn good in that victory over Minnesota.

“I see no reason why we can’t keep the program moving all the way to the top. John Riley has done a wonderful job here. Now, it’s up to me to carry it on.’’

It didn’t take long for Johnson to exhibit his skills as a salesman.

“The state of Wisconsin seems to me to be a natural area for hockey,’’ he said. “It’s a great game and once a boy learns the ropes, he falls in love with it’’

To spread that message around the state, Johnson made immediate plans to schedule one Badger game in Milwaukee and another in Green Bay. It was all part of his master plan to sell the sport.

“Once the youngsters get going in hockey,’’ Bob Johnson promised excitedly, ‘’they’ll feel it’s the only winter sport to play.’’

And on any given day that they played, he suggested, it would be a great day for hockey.

ON WISCONSIN
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