It was a trying 2014-15 season for the University of Wisconsin Badgers men’s hockey team. The Badgers haven’t finished a season with single digits in the win column since the 1963-64 season. While only going 4-26-5 this season, the young Wisconsin team never quit on head coach Mike Eaves. For freshman defenseman Jack Dougherty, going through a trying season helped him develop much more quickly than the team probably imagined.
“I think it helped a lot more than our record was put out,” said Dougherty on his development. “It was tough being able to only win four games this year, but as a freshman defenseman, I was kind of thrown into the fire right away. I definitely made some progress on and off the ice maturing as a player and a young man.”
Being thrown into the fire helped Dougherty hone in on his skills. On a rebuilding Wisconsin team, it helped speed up development.
“Obviously, our record wasn’t that great, so we spent a lot of time in the defensive zone,” said Dougherty. “My defensive skills, strength and physicality really developed this year, which is what I wanted.”
When a team goes through that many trials and tribulations in one season, it can sometimes damper the attitude of its players. The roster for the Badgers featured many underclassmen. Dougherty hit the ice in 33 of the 35 games for Badgers this season, a feat that not many freshmen, especially at a major program like Wisconsin get to experience. Gaining that experience as a freshman gives Dougherty confidence going into next season.
“I think we will be okay, especially with the Wisconsin culture,” said Dougherty. “We’re a real blue-collar team. We’re going to show up every night and try to outwork the team we’re playing. We have a lot of guys that are talented also. When you put that talent and work ethic together, hopefully it will warrant better results next year.”
In the ever-competitive Big Ten, the team will have to take a big leap forward next season to be fully competitive with the traditional conference power houses like Minnesota and Michigan. Just being in a conference full of storied programs is something that is still settling in to Dougherty’s mind. The right-handed shot from Cottage Grove, Minnesota has grown up surrounded by storied programs; skating in the rinks that house those storied programs is still incredible.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Dougherty. “The atmospheres are incredible in Minnesota’s Mariuuci and Michigan’s Yost and our Kohl Center, too. When I skate on the ice and look up and see all the National Championship and Frozen Four appearance banners, it’s a really surreal feeling knowing that you are a part of the tradition in that Wisconsin sweater.”
Another program that is well-known for producing NHL players is the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP). The program, which Dougherty participated in from 2013-2014, played a big role in his development. The USNTDP helped him participate in the 2014 World Junior Championship where he played seven games and notched four points (2G-2A). Being surrounded by some of the best players in the United States not only helped him mature in his game, but also mentally as he prepared to go to college.
“I lived at home all my life and played high school hockey until I was 17 years old,” said Dougherty. “To make that decision and move away from home and go play with what are seen as the best players in the country in that age group, it was just awesome. I found a good fit there and still keep in touch with the guys. It was just an overall amazing experience for me.”
Part of the process in Dougherty’s development is to one day make it to the NHL. Last summer, that dream took a step in the right direction when he was drafted by the Nashville Predators in the second round (51st overall). While making the dream a reality may still be a few years away, Dougherty is excited for the opportunity to one day share the ice with the likes of Shea Weber and Roman Josi.
“Here in Wisconsin, we get the televised Wild games, so when they play the Wild, I try to watch,” said Dougherty. “It’s a fun team to watch, especially with all of the great defensemen they have. It looks like it’s a great atmosphere down at Bridgestone Arena, so I’m excited to hopefully have the opportunity to play for them some day.”
Photo credit: Wisconsin Hockey – Larry Radloff