On January 23, we walked past an empty Kohl Center that was blending into the grey Wisconsin sky. Wrapped in hats, scarves, and gloves, we jumped up the stairs and walked towards LaBahn Arena. Not too far away, we could see the Badgers' lobby packed with fans.
As we approached, I stopped to snap a picture of the words "LaBahn Arena" next to the entrance. My friend told me that we were going to start seeing fans be turned away, since the day's contest against North Dakota was already sold out.
With our tickets in hand, we squeezed past the crowd gathered outside the ticket window and walked through security, spilling out into a less packed hallway at LaBahn. We were a little late, and with just 10 minutes until puck drop, almost every seat was filled. We walked around the rink and finally settled ourselves right behind the net that Wisconsin netminder Ann-Renée Desbiens would guard twice. The band wasn't there, but the building was filling with fans -- amounting to a 2,273-person sellout. There were Badgers diehard fans all around us, sporting Wisconsin jerseys, hats, and scarfs.
Until that day, I'd only heard stories of Midwest women's college hockey -- the packed barns, the sold-out enthusiastic crowds. But on that day, I was finally experiencing them for myself.
You could feel the energy as soon as the puck dropped. This was a rematch between the two teams, and North Dakota was the only team that had beaten the Badgers all season.
It was more than just a game on the line -- it was revenge.
Wisconsin scored first, fairly early in the game, thanks to Erika Sowchuk. It was the only goal of the game, characterizing a nerve-wracking contest from start to finish.
When there was a brief break for intermission, I walked over to the team store. I was surprised (and pleased) with how much women's hockey gear was on sale -- from t-shirts to jerseys branded with the team's identity.
But while we watched, attentively following the puck and each player while I documented the game on Snapchat, a little girl behind us cheered on the Badgers.
She explained the rules of the game to her friends, a few little boys seated next to her. She kept saying how excited she was to finally be able to play next year. And at one point she said everyone was at the women's game because the men weren't playing well.
The Badgers won by a final score of 1-0, and when the buzzer sounded, LaBahn erupted.
By the time we returned on Sunday afternoon, I felt like a local. My red-and-white Boston University hat still looked like Badgers gear, and by this time I was sporting a Badgers jersey with the classic Wisconsin script printed diagonally. I knew all the chants -- from Ms. O'Leary's cow to the goal song and even Varsity. I was really excited that the band was there this time.
We arrived a little earlier on Sunday, so we walked through the lone lobby on one end of the ice, skimming through plaques of women's and men's Wisconsin hockey history. I picked up some Badgers goodies, including a set of trading cards of the team. After some wandering around, we found enough seats on on the side where Wisconsin shoots twice, just opposite the band.
And this time before the puck dropped I stood up, joined the band, the few students and the fans to chant during the starting lineup announcement.
Sarah Nurse scored with 1:29 left in the first to give Wisconsin the 1-0 lead. However, North Dakota's Becca Kohler knotted the game early in the third, leading to an anxious period of play. It looked like the game would go into overtime, but Emily Clark scored the game winner for Wisconsin with just 1:12 minutes left.
It was amazing.
Out East, women's college hockey teams don't play in packed barns. I know because I fell in love with women's hockey at Walter Brown Arena at Boston University, huddled in the old press box with my credential wrapped around my neck. While I covered that team, the largest crowd BU drew was 1,005 people as the Terriers defeated Northeastern in their regular-season home finale in 2011.
It was the same season BU made the NCAA championship game for the first time in program history ... and lost to Wisconsin.