IceHogs linked by NCAA title game

by Chris Etheridge || AHL On The Beat Archive

Jake Dowell scored a team-high 19 goals for Wisconsin as a senior in 2006-07.

Two hours before the Rockford IceHogs’ Oct. 18 game against the Milwaukee Admirals, rookie Mike Brennan sat on the visiting bench and looked into the stands at the Bradley Center.

"I thought these seats were red," he mumbled as he stared at the rows of blue chairs in the cavernous 17,845-seat building.

But consider the defenseman’s only other memory of the Bradley Center, and he can easily be forgiven for the mix-up.

"That’s because you were playing us," said Rockford center Jake Dowell, who was standing behind him in the hallway leading to the visiting locker room.

The Rockford alternate captain was referring to the NCAA national championship game on April 5, 2006, between Brennan’s Boston College Eagles and Dowell’s University of Wisconsin Badgers.

Indeed the stands that night were Badger red. More than 17,600 college hockey fans, mostly representing Wisconsin, came to Milwaukee. There they saw the Badgers win their first NCAA men’s ice hockey Division I championship in 16 years.

"It was in Milwaukee so it was huge for us," Dowell said later. “That was as cool as it gets.”

Mike Brennan reached three Frozen Fours in his four seasons at Boston College.

The game was a close one, ending in a 2-1 win for Wisconsin. Pat Gannon gave the Eagles the 1-0 lead in the first period. But then Robbie Earl and Tom Gilbert scored two unanswered markers for the Badgers in the second and third periods respectively for the win.

And now, 2-1/2 years after that 2006 Frozen Four, the Rockford IceHogs locker room could seem like something of a reunion for the Eagles and the Badgers. Four skaters who appeared in that game — Jack Skille and Dowell for Wisconsin, as well as Dan Bertram and Brennan for Boston College– now wear the IceHogs uniform and are working their way through the Chicago Blackhawks system.

Milwaukee’s home opener on Oct. 18 of this season was the first time all four had appeared in that arena together again.

“We joke about it sometimes,” said Brennan. “But (Skille and Dowell) never throw it back in our face. It was cool to play against them and then talk about it now.”

Bertram, who was drafted out of Canadian juniors the same year as Skille but chose to finish his degree at Boston College instead, agrees with his teammate.

“Guys like Skille and Dowell — it was fun to play against them,” Bertram said. “And now it’s fun to play with them. It’s a whole new experience.”

Jack Skille played two seasons at Wisconsin after being drafted seventh overall by the Blackhawks in 2005.

The 90-minute drive over from Madison might have been a little easier for the more experienced Badger team than the several-hour flight from Boston filled with 12 underclassmen and just three seniors, all of whom were making their first trip to the Frozen Four.

"It definitely felt like a home game," said Skille, the No. 7 overall pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

For Skille it may continue to feel like home. In one of his first games back in the Bradley Center after that championship game, the Madison, Wis., native put on a show for the home state crowd. It was especially meaningful because the Milwaukee Admirals had invited the University of Wisconsin band to the Feb. 22, 2008 contest.

The young winger potted the game-winning goal with 57 seconds left in the game and tacked on an assist, taking home the #1 star and giving a salute to the cheering crowd after the game. The IceHogs beat that Admirals team 3-2 that night after falling 4-0 to the same team in the same building just five days earlier.

For the sophomores Bertram and Brennan, the memory of that championship game was quite different from the Wisconsin team. It was the first time that Brennan, a Smithtown, N.Y., native had been on such a grand stage, playing in what would become the first of three Frozen Fours in his Boston College career.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” said Bertram. “We were a little bit of an underdog that year. I think we surprised a lot of people.”

That BC team stayed nearly intact for the next two seasons, losing the championship game again in 2007 before finally winning the national title in 2008.

That game wasn’t the first time that Dowell, Bertram and Skille had played on the same ice either. They all knew each other from prospect camps and the USA National Under-18 program in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“When you’ve gone through things like that together,” Skille said. “It makes it easier to go over there and say hello.”

Dan Bertram capped his four-year stay at BC with a national championship in 2008.

Combined with those camps and the junior competitions, Brennan believes that his experience in the NCAA postseason three straight years was part of the reason he now finds himself playing under a professional contract.

“It’s definitely better for you the further your team can go,” he said. “With our team, we made it so far every year that it helped you get noticed.”

Skille agrees.

“Any time you play on a championship team, you’re going to get looks,” he said. “They want to see winners.”

That statement seems even truer based on the fact that more than half of the 38 players in that game are now under contract with a team in the American Hockey League or National Hockey League. Several others are also playing in other American professional leagues or in Europe.

Take Wisconsin’s Adam Burish, a former Norfolk Admiral who now plays for the Chicago Blackhawks, and throw him in with the four in Rockford and there are five players affiliated with the Blackhawks who skated on the Bradley sheet that night.

Former Boston College netminder Cory Schneider has started the 2008-09 season with a 6-1-0 record for the Manitoba Moose. Portland’s Nathan Gerbe, as well as Providence’s Brett Motherwell and Lowell’s Stephen Gionta, all played for the Eagles that night. Joe Rooney (Lowell), Brian Boyle (Manchester, now with the Los Angeles Kings) and Chris Collins (Providence) also played in the AHL after leaving BC.

On the other side of the face-off circle, Wisconsin’s Davis Drewiske (Manchester), Robbie Earl (Toronto), Andrew Joudrey (Hershey) and Brian Elliott (Binghamton) all are working in the top hockey developmental league in the world. Additionally, Jeff Likens (Manchester), Joe Pavelski (Worcester, now with the San Jose Sharks), Tom Gilbert (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, now with the Edmonton Oilers), Ryan MacMurchy (Peoria) and Ross Carlson (Houston) have all played a significant amount of time in the AHL.

“There were a lot of guys that showed they were going to be good,” Dowell said. “And there were a lot of guys who have developed since then.”

So with only a tenth of what will be a long 2008-09 season completed for most AHL teams, it’s probably nice to know that you will occasionally find a friendly face behind that goalie mask or on the other side of the face-off dot. And then after the uniforms are off at the end of the game, those college buddies can grab a dinner together and spend some time catching up.