At the University of Wisconsin they play a wild kind of hockey. Enter Madison's Dane County Coliseum on game night and, as events progress, ask yourself these questions: Is this a sport or is it Armageddon? Where is the real action, on the ice or in the stands? Do the laws of physics apply or are those visiting players actually shrinking before your very eyes?
No boos were ever like the Coliseum's—none so oppressive, so incessant, so nearly evil. They reverberate so thickly they seem to form clouds, to rain down millions of little b's and o's onto the bowed heads of visiting teams—Michigan State, for example, one night last week. And didn't they deserve such a rain? The nerve of State. Why, just before the game started they actually skated out on the ice.
Said Wisconsin Coach Bob Johnson: "This home crowd is worth one or two goals any night." One, two, five, who knows? But there is more to it than boos. Although Wisconsin hockey is only 10 years old, last year the Badgers had the best won-lost record in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, the nation's strongest. For 11 weeks this year the Badgers ranked No. 1 in the nation and after a small slump they appear to be heading back.
On this night, with the game nearly half over, Michigan State leads 2-0, an inexcusable affront. Beside the Spartan bench, filling much of the Coliseum's section CC2, is a group of Wisconsin backers known as The Mad Dogs or The Animals. On quick glance the section is all hair and blue denim shirts, and the maddest of the Dogs start the night by not standing for the national anthem. Instead, they leer through a Plexiglas shield that separates them from the visiting bench. In some previous years The Mad Dogs mistook the visiting players for spittoons, and now they are understandably frustrated. Tonight their hate object is Amo Bessone, the Michigan State coach.
A Mad Dog barks, "Go home, Amo," and soon some 8,000 soul mates are following suit. Eight thousand four hundred and thirty-one, rather, an average Wisconsin crowd. Wisconsin hockey holds all the collegiate attendance records for the sport; it will lead the nation for the fourth straight year.
In fairness, The Mad Dogs do not set the standards for Wisconsin. Most of the crowd is mad all right, or at least angry, but decidedly human. In CC2, though, there is always the threat of something outrageous happening. One Dog yells, "Hey, Amo, give me some birdcalls." Another keeps addressing a dark-haired referee as "Greaseball." A third can't seem to take his eyes off Bessone. After repeatedly urging him to—well, the suggestion gets him escorted out by a sheriff.
Bessone fumes, "We don't get abuse like that anywhere else. If I was 20 years younger I'd go over the fence."
One of his tormentors is a student from New York. He says, "We admit to being obnoxious. But when I go to Ranger games at home I'd never think of acting like a buffoon."
The house specialty is reserved for a Wisconsin goal. At 8:15 of the second period Dennis Olmstead, son of the NHL immortal Bert, scores. His is the first of 41 shots at the Michigan State goalie to get through. Still, to the gathered faithful the goalie obviously is full of holes, like a sieve, which explains what follows.
The noise begins low down near the ice, from a few voices at first, clipped and quick: "SIEVE, SIEVE, SIEVE," and then spreads quickly, the tempo slowing: "SIEVE...SIEVE...SIEVE," sonorous and heavy, continuing as play resumes, on and on, accompanied by a forest of raised forefingers, all shaking and pointing derisively at the visiting goalie in tempo with the chanting. The boos had been a blessing in comparison, and the din has hardly abated when Gary Winchester scores Wisconsin's second goal. In the stands middle-aged men, caught up in the excitement, can be seen throwing punches in the air, as at a boxing match. Now the score is 2-2, and again the chorus builds and then builds some more with two more quick Wisconsin goals. "SIEVE, SIEVE, oh my God, SIEVE!" shrieks a middle-aged woman. Everyone seems caught up in a collective joy, and the game ends at 5-2 Wisconsin.
Dennis Olmstead says, "I shouldn't be able to skate all out for more than a minute but all that screaming gets my mind off the fatigue."
And Amo Bessone says, "It was kind of mild tonight. You should see it when they lead all the way." And that is Wisconsin hockey. There are reasons.
In the first third of this century all the big-college hockey teams came to Madison but Wisconsin's rink was outdoors then, the weather was undependable and the sport died. From 1935 to 1963 the university had no hockey but no one seemed to care. Collegiate boxing was very popular in those years, and Wisconsin was the biggest boxing school of all, winning eight NCAA championships between 1939 and 1956. Then in 1960 tragedy struck; a popular senior named Charles Mohr was knocked out one night and died a week later. Wisconsin dropped boxing; other colleges followed suit.
In the meantime a wealthy hockey nut named Fenton Kelsey Jr. had built an outdoor hockey rink. In the fall of 1963 the university began to play hockey there but the seating capacity was only 2,500 and the attendance averaged only 596 per game. There were two part-time coaches, one a criminal lawyer named John Riley. Even so the team finished with an 8-5-3 record.
In 1966 the university hired Johnson, then coach at Colorado College. Johnson brought 10 players with him that he had been eyeing for his former school. He told them something big was about to happen at Wisconsin, and four years later six of them, then seniors, played for Wisconsin in the NCAA championships. And now for six straight seasons Johnson's teams have won 20 games or more. At home he is doing just as well. His 15-year-old son Mark has played in national tournaments the last two years. Peter, 13, was in the national Pee Wee championship two years ago.
Johnson says, "When kids like that get some more competition, we're gonna be in good shape. We haven't even scratched the surface in the U.S. for hockey yet. The day will come when half the kids in the NHL will be from south of the border." At the University of Wisconsin, nine of Johnson's 19 regulars already are.
Wisconsin's football team was doing poorly when Johnson arrived, and a lot of people in Madison were beginning to miss boxing. But as John Riley says, "Now they were getting another sport that combined science, speed and violence. Besides, people were hungry to see that big W go up in the win column again."
In the early spring of 1967 the Dane County Coliseum was opened. The university rented it for hockey. It looked like an immense carnival tent from the outside, pleasantly striped in blue and white. Inside, the seats were padded and they soon began to fill. "This is no dirty deepfreeze with smelly washrooms like most hockey facilities," Riley says. When Bob Johnson is recruiting players he often has to do little more than lead them into the Coliseum and say, "Look."
Now Wisconsin had its formula for hockey success: a way to attract all the old boxing fans in town (who sometimes forget they're at a hockey game), Wisconsin winners, and the classiest place around to watch them in.
There was something else: Wisconsin's reputation for political activism. On August 24, 1970 the school's math research center was bombed. "The last blow of the radical movement," says Jeff Grossman, sports editor of the university's radical Daily Cardinal. Nothing comparable has happened in the movement since on any campus, and there are many angry young men without an outlet. Says Grossman: "Most of us find no conflict in supporting a team." He admits that lots of seats at Dane Coliseum are currently being filled by former demonstrators. Especially in section CC2.