Hilary Knight competes at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 22, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
From Herb Brooks to Amanda Kessel, Chris Chelios and Hilary Knight, the Olympic pipelines from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and University of Wisconsin–Madison have become the gold standard in college ice hockey. As the Badgers and Gophers face off this month in a battle for the border, the two rivals bond over the Olympic ties that run deep on the ice. The men’s and women’s ice hockey programs from both schools have a combined 23 national championships between them and have produced nearly 90 Olympians combined.
“It’s as good as it gets in women's collegiate hockey,” Minnesota women’s hockey coach Brad Frost said. “For the majority of the last decade us and Wisconsin have fought it out for the WCHA (Western Collegiate Hockey Association) regular season championship, tournament championship, and our players know their players because of playing with them on the international stage and growing up with those players. It’s a very healthy rivalry, but one where no holds are barred on the ice; each team wants to beat the other one really badly.”
Frost, whose Gophers fell to the Badgers in the NCAA championship last season, said the Olympic pipeline Minnesota has been involved in starts well before student-athletes step foot on campus.
“As you look at the Olympians on the men's and women's side that played at Minnesota, many of them are Minnesota kids or Minnesotans,” Frost said. “As we know Minnesota is the state of hockey, and many kids play hockey growing up, so they develop their skills and many of them are extremely talented by the time they get to us.”
Just as many kids learn to skate at the time they can walk in Minnesota, Wisconsin men's coach and 1988 Olympian Tony Granato knows the importance of upkeeping the legacy of a historic program.
"I just think we have an elite program,” Granato said. “Jim Johannson (former Badger and USA Hockey assistant executive director who died in 2018) was a big part of USA Hockey for a long time and Olympic hockey, so I think there was a lot of guys that understand the specialness of being able to play for your country and wear the red, white and blue.”
Granato, who made his Olympic coaching debut at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, reiterated the importance of college ice hockey, which he saw firsthand with the addition of four college hockey players on the Olympic team.
“Just the competitiveness and development that they get in college hockey helps them get ready for an opportunity to play for an Olympic team or national team,” Granato said.
In PyeongChang, 94 percent of U.S. ice hockey players played collegiately. Frost had five former players – Hannah Brandt, Dani Cameranesi, Amanda Kessel, Gigi Marvin, Lee Stecklein – and current player Kelly Panne, on the gold-medal winning women’s team. He said he knows the importance of developing skills at the collegiate level for players that continue their careers.
“Our staff has all played a little bit of a role in these Olympians’ lives, and we take a lot of pride in that,” Frost said. “To see, in particular our American kids, win the gold medal was really, really special.”
The Wisconsin women’s team defeated Minnesota 5-4 and 3-0 on Jan. 24-25 in the final regular-season meeting between the two, and the men’s teams play Friday and Saturday.