Eaves working to bridge Badgers’ past success with future

by Adam Fink

It was a phone call from a fan last week that brought an encouraging feeling to Mike Eaves.

“They said they liked what they saw us doing,” Wisconsin’s men’s first-year hockey coach said. “It’s comforting to hear something like that.”

As a rookie head-man trying to replace two previous coaching legends, Eaves will take every compliment he can get while trying to restore the Badgers (5-9, 1-5 WCHA) to national respectability.

But the challenge before him – a weekend series with 10th-ranked Minnesota beginning Friday – isn’t one with a quick fix.

Wisconsin’s offense is ranked 10th in the conference, the power play is last, and the two-man goaltending combination has been mediocre (2.74 average goals allowed per game).

These aren’t the kind of immediate results Eaves, Wisconsin’s career leading scorer from his playing days in the 1970s, imagined when he took the job March 19.

Eaves, however, hasn’t been deterred despite saying he has heard grumblings in the community.

“I have a plan,” the 46-year-old said. “It’s going to take some time but we are going to get better.”

Time is a luxury Eaves might have considering the coaching history of the Badgers’ program.

Jeff Sauer, who retired last season after 20 years as coach, and “Badger” Bob Johnson (1966-1975, 1976-1982) were both tenured and produced five national titles between them.

Eaves isn’t worried about titles or appeasing the Badgers faithful right now. His main concern is adjusting to his players and a program used to stability.

Gophers coach Don Lucia can relate to Eaves’ situation. Lucia took over Minnesota’s program in 1999 for 13-year coach Doug Woog, who was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame on Wednesday.

“It takes awhile to feel comfortable,” Lucia said. “There are a lot of growing pains. We started 2-7-1 and it wasn’t easy dealing with everyone.

“Mike just has to be patient and do it the way he thinks it should be done.”

Eaves’ system and his coaching style is another difference from his predecessors.

Recognized as one of the WCHA’s 50 greatest players, Eaves first learned to play, then coach, in the NHL.

Playing with the Minnesota North Stars and Calgary Flames taught Eaves the physical and aggressive playing style that he now preaches.

As an assistant coach for three NHL teams, Eaves learned what it takes to be successful off the ice as well.

Two of Eaves’ former players from his days coaching the U.S. National Development Team program – and current Gophers players – said that experience is Eaves’ biggest strength and will lead him to success at Wisconsin.

“He was so knowledgeable and his days in the NHL really shined through,” said Travis Weber, the Gophers goaltender expected to start Friday’s game at the Kohl Center.

“He is intense,” forward Barry Tallackson added. “He knows the game well and knows the right buttons to push.”

While he is repeatedly asked about his predecessors, Eaves is quick to note their place in the schools history but said he is ready to create his own legacy.

And Eaves can see firsthand how each practice decreases the transition gap from the past to the present. He also feels his players are responding during games.

“We are all on a learning curve,” Eaves said. “Change never comes easily. I just have to take it day by day. The winning will come and I won’t be compared to the past as much.”

Until then, Eaves wouldn’t mind a few more encouraging phone calls along the way.

Adam Fink covers men’s hockey and

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