Can anyone beat Wisconsin?
by Andrew Podnieks|01 DEC 2021
Grace Bowlby is one of the players who succeeded at the U18 Women’s Worlds with either the U.S. or Canada before winning NCAA titles with Wisconsin.
photo: Jana Chytilova / HHOF-IIHF Images
When Mark Johnson was a wee sprite of a lad, he was part of what the IIHF later called the greatest moment in international hockey history, leading the U.S. to a Miracle on Ice gold medal at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. Johnson led all Americans with 11 points and scored two goals in the Miracle game, a 4-3 win over the heavily-favoured Soviet Union. 

As he celebrated with teammates and basked in this extraordinary glory, he could never have seen a day a quarter of a century later when he would be coaching a women’s hockey team in college or that four decades later he would be the winningest coach in NCAA women’s hockey history.

Yet that where he’s at today, coaching the University of Wisconsin Badgers for a 19th season, a team that earned its sixth national championship under Johnson last year and which is now undefeated in 16 games to start the 2021/22 season. Their only blemish to date is a scoreless tie with Bemidji State a couple of weeks ago. 

You can’t be a good coach if you don’t have good players, and good players won’t come to your college unless you have a good coach. Yet from the very start in 2002, Johnson recruited well and won, year after year. The Badgers won the title last spring thanks to an overtime goal from Daryl Watts, a Toronto native who played for Canada at the 2016 and 2017 Women’s U18 team. 

Watts is back for a fifth year. She is the only freshman ever to win the Patty Kazmaier Award, which she did in 2018 with Boston College, before transferring. She is currently third on the team in scoring with 28 points in 16 games, and she is one of many players from both sides of the border to have loads of U18 experience. 

Consider the team’s top scorer, Makenna Webster, who is tearing the NCAA apart with 33 points in 16 games. She also played at three U18’s, winning gold in 2018 and 2020 and silver in between. Casey O’Brien, a 20-year-old forward, was teammates with Webster in ’18 and ’19 and in second in Badgers’ scoring so far this season. Indeed, Webster, O’Brien, and Watts are 1-2-3 in NCAA Division I scoring overall. 

Goalie Kennedy Blair, meanwhile, has played in 14 of the team’s 16 games and leads the NCAA with 13 wins and five shutouts. She was the winning ‘tender in last year’s championship after transferring from Mercyhurst.

Other Americans on the current Badgers’ team with WW18 experience include defender Natalie Buchbinder (2017), forward Delaney Drake (2017), Grace Bowlby (2015, 2016), and Nicole Lamantia (2017). Lacey Eden played at the 2019 and 2020 Women’s U18 and then made the leap to the top level, playing at the Women’s Worlds in Calgary this past August. The 19-year-old had two assists in five games, winning silver. Britta Curl played at the 2018 U18 and joined Eden on the team in Calgary, playing three games and scoring the game-winning goal in a 6-0 win over ROC during the preliminary round. 

Among the Canadians, the Shirley sisters from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan are prominent. Sophie, the older at 22, played at the 2016 and 2017 U18’s and was named IIHF Directorate Best Forward in the latter. A great skater, she in the kind of talent who will certainly play for Canada’s senior team sooner rather than later. Her younger sister, Grace, followed Sophie and played at the ’18 and ’19 WW18s against, among others, Webster and Eden.

Marianne Picard played for Canada at the 2020 WW18 alongside Sarah Wozniewicz; Daryl Watts played in 2016 and 2017; and, Brette Pettet played in 2017. Maddi Wheeler played in 2019 and 2020.

In all, an incredible 15 players on this year’s Badgers team have WW18 experience on their resume. It’s no wonder they are undefeated.

Johnson’s successes are long and rich. Alumna to his program include all-time scorers Meghan Duggan and Hilary Knight as well as a who’s who of IIHF women’s hockey stars, including Brianna Decker, Sarah Nurse, and Meaghan Mikkelson, and goalies Alex Rigsby (now known by her married name, Alex Cavallini) and Ann-Renee Desbiens. Johnson has also coached five women to Kazmaier Award success – Sara Bauer (2006), Jessie Vetter (2009), Meghan Duggan (2011), Brianna Decker (2012), and Ann-Renee Desbiens (2017). At the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, there were nine Badgers in the tournament, five Canadian and four American.

Johnson has now won more than 550 games with the Badgers and led them to national championships in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2019, and 2021. The only time he hasn’t been behind the bench in the last two decades was for 18 games during the 2009/10 season when he took a leave of absence to coach the U.S. National Team at the Olympics in Vancouver. He won’t be coaching in Beijing, but his Badgers are clear favourites to repeat as champions this year. They have the experience, the skill, the scoring and goaltending. Really, what’s to stop them?