The University of Wisconsin Badgers came up short of their ultimate goal when they lost 5-0 to Boston College in the NCAA championship game at the 2010 Frozen Four, but they were a strong team featuring an enviable collection of talent.
That team's impact is now being felt across the NHL.
Brendan Smith of the Detroit Red Wings and Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers, who will meet Sunday at Madison Square Garden (12:30 ET; NBC, TSN2, RDS2) were a major part of that Wisconsin team's blue line. All six regulars on that defensive corps now play in the NHL or are on their way there.
It was a powerhouse unit that also featured Justin Schultz of the Edmonton Oilers, Jake Gardiner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, recent Columbus Blue Jackets call-up Cody Goloubef and Calgary Flames draft pick John Ramage.
"We were really good at Wisconsin because of our blue line," said Rangers center Derek Stepan, who also starred on that Badgers team. "We had some great defensemen, which makes a big difference."
That's high praise for the defense coming from Stepan, who led an attack that featured Craig Smith of the Nashville Predators and current Columbus pro scout Blake Geoffrion, who was awarded the 2010 Hobey Baker Award as the top player in college hockey.
The friendships from that team endure today and McDonagh often looks forward to seeing his old college buddy Smith whenever the Red Wings play the Rangers.
"He's coming along pretty nicely for them. He's a competitive kid. I had a blast getting to know him in college and playing with him there," McDonagh said. "It's pretty cool to be part of that group. It seems every year there is a next wave of guys. I don't know any of the d-men there now, but it just seems like they're developing the next ones who will come in. It's a credit to that coaching staff there and [head coach] Mike Eaves."
Eaves and Wisconsin have carved out a reputation for developing top-flight defensemen. The Badgers previously featured NHL defensemen Ryan Suter, Tom Gilbert, Jamie McBain and Davis Drewiske, and the 2013-14 squad is led by Jake McCabe, a second-round pick (No. 44) of the Buffalo Sabres who captained Team USA to gold at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship.
"McCabe at the World Juniors played a huge role in them winning the gold. I remember skating with him a little bit a couple of summers ago," McDonagh said. "He's very mobile and strong. Definitely smart and takes pride in his own end. It's good to see Wisconsin doing well."
For the players who helped establish that impressive Wisconsin legacy, it's still an eye-opener to see all the NHL talent that at one point patrolled the program's blue line.
"Every year it seems you can pull a new d-man from the League from Wisconsin. It's pretty cool," Smith said. "What they do at Wisconsin is they teach us right, how to play a professional way of hockey. It's like they're breeding D up there."
Perhaps no defenseman has been more successful in using the Wisconsin program as a launching pad than McDonagh. The Rangers star was known in college primarily for consistency in his own end. But since establishing himself in New York, he has enhanced the other aspects of his game. McDonagh gets regular time on the power play and has established himself as one of the League's best all-around defensemen.
"To see a guy like Ryan, who was our captain, just lighting it up. He wasn't even that big of an offensive threat back in college, but he did everything right. It's working for him right now," Smith said. "Now he's one of their leaders. It's cool to see how well our D corps [from Wisconsin] has done and how everyone continues to get better. It's not like guys have plateaued. Everyone is still getting better."
The Badgers didn't just make it to the national championship game in 2010. They also hosted the inaugural Camp Randall Hockey Classic. In the school's first-ever outdoor hockey game at Camp Randall Stadium on Feb. 6, 2010, Wisconsin defeated the University of Michigan Wolverines 3-2 in front of more than 55,000 fans.
For an impressive Badgers team packed with future NHL players, it was just another landmark moment in a magical season.
"I think we had nine guys who played in the NHL from that team. We obviously had a great team," Smith said. "We had a blast with that Camp Randall game, which was huge. That was a great year, one of the best years of my life."
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