Off-Topic Tuesday: A Fan’s Lifetime

Here’s another rerun from my first blog, the Daily Aneurysm, for Off-Topic Tuesday. Just as they did in 2006, the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team has qualified for the NCAA Frozen Four championship, to be played this weekend in Detroit. The first part of this entry appeared on April 6, 2006.

In the 1960s, men’s hockey returned to the University of Wisconsin for the first time since the 1920s. Games were first played at little Hartmeyer Arena on the city’s east side, which seated maybe a thousand fans. The real home of Wisconsin hockey, however, was the Dane County Coliseum, a 10,000-seat barn that quickly became the most feared home-ice venue in all of college hockey. At the Coliseum, Badger hockey wasn’t just a game, it was a happening, a rock concert, tent revival, and fraternity blowout rolled into one. . . .

It helped that the Badgers got very good very quickly, qualifying for NCAA tournament play as early as 1970, and winning their first national championship in 1973. Championships followed frequently after that—1977, 1980, 1983, 1990—five golden rings in all. What made those glory years even more glorious was the fact that Wisconsin hockey was the top sport on campus. The basketball program had been awful since the 40s; football was up and down; women’s sports had yet to make any impact at all. Hockey was the toughest ticket in town—and the fact that it drew paying customers was critical, especially in the late 80s, when the athletic department was millions of dollars in debt and several sports programs were on the brink.

The UW athletic program rebounded [starting]  in the 1990s—three Rose Bowls in football, Big Ten championships in basketball (and an unlikely Final Four appearance in 2000). For the hockey faithful, that was all very nice, but until hockey returned to national prominence, something would be missing. It’s back, starting tonight, when the Badgers return to the NCAA Frozen Four for the first time since 1992. . . .

(On the day of the championship game, April 8, 2006, I wrote the following.)

I wonder what it’s like to be a Yankees fan. Or a fan of Duke basketball. Every year when the season starts, they know their team has a chance to be champions. Must be nice. Of course, it’s easy to be a fan of the Yankees or Duke, precisely because they win championships frequently. It’s what makes them attractive, especially to people who aren’t from New York or North Carolina. Walk around the average shopping mall where you live (outside of New York or North Carolina) and count the number of people wearing Yankees or Duke apparel. I’d wager practically none of them were Yankees fans in the early 90s, when the team was below .500 every year, or could tell you who coached Duke before Mike Krzyzewski. (Bill Foster, actually.) Such fans are not really fans in the traditional sense. They’re consumers, and they maximize their emotional “buying power” by picking what looks like the highest-quality product—and they’ll switch if something better comes along. That’s a fine idea if you’re buying a car or a brand of frozen peas, and it’s actually a weird sort of ideal at this time in this country, when being a good American is defined by being a good consumer. However, when picking a sports team to follow, it’s a betrayal of who you are.

. . . Most of us become fans based on geography. Around here, we’re Packers fans, Badger fans, Brewers fans, because our parents and friends are. (Although I grew up a Chicago Cubs fan, because when I discovered baseball, Milwaukee had no team, and the Cubs were what I could find on TV.) This fandom becomes part of who we are, and we could change it no more easily than we could change our appearance. Oh, it’s possible to change it, like getting a face lift or a boob job is possible—but it’s not something most folks can do without causing people to talk.

Being a Wisconsin sports fan builds character—because it’s true that you can learn more from losing than from winning. We’ve had our successes in my fan’s lifetime. The Packers won a Super Bowl in 1997, but—and this is the point—they lost out on the way to the top many more times than they made it to the top. The Brewers made it to the World Series in 1982—and lost. My Cubs won pennants in 1984, 1989, and 2003 but crashed spectacularly each time, falling short of ultimate victory.

Which is why today is a special day. Today marks one of the rare occasions in my fan’s lifetime that my team has reached the pinnacle with a chance to win it all in one game, when the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team plays Boston College for the NCAA championship. . . .

The Mrs. and I are hockey fans, and have been season ticket holders since we moved back home six years ago. But as Wisconsin sports fans—Badgers, Packers, Brewers, whatever—we know the bargain we’ve made. This ain’t Duke. Being a Wisconsin sports fan means that you will win sometimes, but you will lose often, too. That’s the way it is. As a Wisconsin sports fan, you know going in that you will rarely win it all because you will rarely have the chance. Tonight we do. And we are ready. We are ready. We are ready.

[The Badgers won their sixth championship in 2006, defeating Boston College 2-1 in the final. This week’s semifinals are on Thursday at Ford Field in Detroit; winners meet Saturday for the title.]

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