For the first time since the 2013-’14 season, the Wisconsin Badgers had legitimate NCAA Tournament expectations heading into their season. Despite their talent and promise, though, Wisconsin finished with a disappointing 14-19-3-0 record and out of the NCAA Tournament field after a first-round exit from the Big Ten Tournament.
According to head coach Tony Granato, last season Wisconsin took a big step forward as a program. This year, however, was a step back. And, on top of Wisconsin’s underwhelming record, the Badgers are losing 42 percent of their scoring, with key players like Ryan Wagner, Cameron Hughes and Jake Linhart graduating, along with star sophomore Trent Frederic leaving the program after signing a three-year contract with the Boston Bruins.
But, even with those departures and this year’s step back, the Wisconsin hockey program is in a significantly better position than before Granato arrived. This year’s freshman class was one of the best in the nation. But, more importantly, Granato has instilled and is continuing to develop an identity for the UW program built on confidence — a confidence that could propel the Badgers into a position to be competitive nationally for years to come.
Since arriving at Wisconsin, Granato has constantly instilled confidence in his players. Granato holds individual and team meetings about having confidence in yourself as well as having confidence in the other players on the team. He thinks that any hockey team can have talent and favorable schematics, but that without confidence, it is hard to have any continued success.
“Not to say anything about [former head coach Mike] Eaves, he’s a great coach, but Tony just really stresses confidence in everything,” junior defenseman Peter Tischke said. “I know my confidence was low after my freshman year. Then Tony came in and just said, ‘believe in yourself, believe in your skating.’”
To be successful at any higher level of hockey, it isn’t enough just to be strong and fast or even have a high hockey IQ. Without confidence, all of those attributes won’t successfully translate into live action.
“It’s huge. I would say it’s one of the biggest factors of being a hockey player. You see guys like Ovechkin. That guy steps on the ice and he pretty much looks like he knows that he’s going to score goals,” junior forward Will Johnson said. “When you step on the ice you have to have a little bit of that ‘this is my puck, this is my goal to score.’ A little bit of that swagger.”
“As a player, when you go on the ice, if you don’t have confidence in yourself and in your teammates, and you don’t think your coach has confidence in you, it’s pretty hard to play the game,” Granato said. “But if you go out there and believe in yourself and you believe in what the game plan is and you believe in your linemates, you always have a chance.”
Part of the reason why confidence is so important is that it manifests itself in different ways for different players or positions.
“To me, confidence is making sure I can get up and gap up on the forwards if there’s ever a quick transition so I can kill the play fast,” Tischke said. “It’s mostly just trusting your skating I would say for the D.”
Similarly, confidence allows goalies to be aware of where they are in their net, stay centered and square, control their rebounds and stay consistent after conceding a goal. Offensively, confidence elicits a patience and strength that can translate into finding passing lanes and finishing scoring opportunities.
Wagner, who led the Badgers in scoring this season, is probably the UW player most emblematic of the effect that confidence can have offensively. Wagner recorded only 27 points on 12 goals in his first two seasons with UW, but when Granato arrived and Wagner was given more responsibility, he felt more confident and subsequently recorded 61 points on 24 goals in his final two seasons.
“When you have confidence, you want the puck on your stick,” he said. “If you don’t have that confidence you get over the blue line and you are worried about making a mistake so you kind of just throw the puck away.”
But having confidence isn’t solely believing in your own abilities. According to Granato, confidence in your teammates is equally essential.
“Coach always talks about building trust within the players,” Wagner added. “If you have trust in your linemates and you know they’re confident, it takes a lot of pressure off you because you know your teammate is going to make the right play.”
Of course, playing with confidence isn’t something that is acquired effortlessly. It takes time to develop and has to be fostered within a culture of support, responsibility and, mostly, focused preparation.
“I think you just have to control the things you can control, and that’s your attitude and your effort,” sophomore forward Max Zimmer said. “If you have the attitude and put in effort every day, then eventually you’re going to be confident.”
“In general, the concept of you believing in what you have done to get ready for that opportunity should give you confidence,” Granato said. “Nutritionally you have to take care of yourself. You have to know where you’re supposed to be, and you have proper rest going in to a game. You watch the video and you break down what the other team is going to do against you. You can control all of those things, and that’s what gives you confidence.”
Granato has said that figuring out that routine and building confidence through preparation is not an easy task for young athletes. Still, many of this year’s freshmen have said that through individual meetings and support, they felt confident almost immediately coming into college hockey for the first time. That attention to detail, along with his NHL experience, makes Granato certainly well-suited to instill confidence in all of his players and the program as a whole.
“That’s something that he brought from the NHL, something that he’s trying to bring back to us because that’s something that those guys have,” Johnson said. “If you’re a pro, you have full confidence, and I think instilling that in us makes it a little easier when we get on the ice to be comfortable with each other and to get things done.”
Three years ago, Wisconsin finished the season 8-19-8-0 and often looked like a team that didn’t think it could contend against the nation’s top teams. This year, though, even when Wisconsin struggled to string together consecutive victories, it never lost its confidence and often looked like a team that knew it could beat anyone in the country.
“A confident player wants to make plays,” Granato said. “They want to go over the boards. They don’t play chuck a puck, and they don’t get rid of it so they don’t have to make a mistake. They believe in the next guy, they support in each other and they’re energized.”
Wisconsin often resembled Granato’s description of a confident player this year — especially the freshman class.
That confidence looks like it will only continue to build in the future. And the Wisconsin program seems primed to progress with it.