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On Wisconsin('s Downfall) and the many challenges ahead

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With few bright spots, Wisconsin sadly reaches its regular season finale with two conference wins and a second straight finish in the Big Ten cellar wrapped up. The challenges to turn things around extend off the ice as well.

In an empty arena, Badger Bob's "It's a Great Day for Hockey!" quote sits between Wisconsin's national championship banners.
In an empty arena, Badger Bob's "It's a Great Day for Hockey!" quote sits between Wisconsin's national championship banners.
Nathan Wells

In a land of puck discontent, the Badgers stand truly alone.

Where other schools out West yearn about past ideals and mascots now gone, Wisconsin is the only one whose lamenting lately for the good ol' days deals with its present team. The Badgers, sporting a 7-17-8 record, right now had as many drafted players leave the team in July (two) as Big Ten wins. While other young, struggling teams have improved in the second half of the season, team success and giving any hope for fans have still eluded Wisconsin.

Upsetting Penn State this past weekend is reaching a point where beating the Nittany Lions at home like PSU did to a heavily favored Wisconsin three seasons ago seems like a big deal.

It's been a rough year on the isthmus to say the least for young Wisconsin, featuring 21 underclassmen, as the team heads west to Minneapolis against the Gophers in last place for the second straight year.

10,000 words could be written on that statement alone. (At this point they almost have over the past two seasons. If you read one, check out the recent profile by Todd Milewski of the Cap Times.) This article could be half that total and still miss points. Each piece of evidence adds on to the next like a never-ending Power Point presentation.

Simply put, Wisconsin has reached a point where the problem is that everything needs to be fixed. The team's stats are near the bottom of college hockey, wins are few, moral victories are waning, local media attention is almost non-existent, and fans are somewhere between accepting apathy and calling en masse for head coach Mike Eaves to be fired.

Outside of an upset win over then-#1 North Dakota, it's hard to find things to cheer. Two of the seven wins are against first-year Arizona State. The only victories of 2016 besides last weekend came against an Alaska team that finished in eighth place in the WCHA.

The fans inside Kohl Center remember glory days not too long gone. Ar least the ones there still.

To go from a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and Big Ten conference tournament champion two seasons to losing on paper more attendance this year than a third of the college hockey programs average is boggling.

In reality, it's sobering to see the number of red seats in photos tweeted out at puck drop against old rivals and Big Ten teams AD Barry Alvarez was a proponent of playing. Any faster of a free fall and the Badgers would be hitting terminal velocity.

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Heading down to Madison in January for the Minnesota-Wisconsin series brought the Badgers' best light in focus.

Compared to normally being half-filled - according to Milewski, 31% of the on average 8800 men's hockey seats sold have gone unused - it was not bad for the new reality. The attendance to see the Gophers had a mostly accurate season-high 13K Saturday although Friday's game had an FFA group sit all off by their lonesome in the upper deck. Even the students only filled one level of three.

This is the best light, remind you. This is where Wisconsin's expectations are now.

Not every game is going to have the pro wrestling hatred of Phil Kessel scoring against his hometown team or out of this world excitement over sweeping the maroon and gold or ending a long unbeaten streak. It is the moments which create the peaks.

The lows were mellowed in a rough weekend where the Badgers ended up being out-scored 13-2 and swept at home by Minnesota for the first time in a decade. Truth is, there was more excitement next door from the 2200 red and white clad fans that sold out LaBahn Arena for the Badger women's team playing North Dakota.

That weekend at Kohl Center was, minus the students, a muted reaction, a photo filter designed to render everything drab. Not even big, ultimately suspended hits in a 9-2 loss did the trick to change the lowest of lows. This was acceptance.

(The passion remains in a dampened form. Those same fans weeks later were angry at Alvarez after he made comments construed as negative to the program and it not mattering. Alvarez, like a former assistant who called fans "idiots" last season, ended up apologizing. Public apologies at this point are nearing Big Ten wins in number although both trail suspensions.)

On the ice the players still cared, disappointed as anyone in the regular season after losing against its biggest rival. The team admirably hasn't quit. It's easy to point out flaws over solutions, but there is a group trying to find what is holding the team back.

On the ice remains elite talent. There were 10-15 NHL scouts disappointed that Luke Kunin, a potential 2016 first round pick who leads the Badgers in goals with 16, missed a game. Sophomore Ryan Wagner is the only other player with double digit goals and Grant Besse continues to be a bright spot. Freshman Matt Jurusik, the youngest full-time goalie in college hockey, is coming into own having faced more shots than any other Big Ten goalie.

Even this past week the Badgers picked up a verbal commitment from one of the top U-17 defensemen in the country.

The frustrating part, if you're Wisconsin, is seeing that Eaves can still recruit first rounders and impact collegians without putting everything together.

It would be better if Kunin was not an exception. Of the three big names in a rebound recruiting class brought in this year to beef up the Badgers, he's the only one on the roster. 2015 first round pick Brock Boeser is lighting it up for North Dakota and Luke Opilka went to the OHL when he was already on campus.

Jack Dougherty, Christian Dvorak, Keegan Ford and Morgan Zulinick could also be on this year's team before joining the fans leaving or decommitting. (It's hard to think how much worse the season would have gone if the rumors that Kunin was joining this list by leaving the program in November turned out to be true.)

There's not much to do when your reinforcements reinforce what you're trying to get away from instead.

Leaving a city in a shadow of its hockey past, it was hard not to wonder what comes next. Are there consequences for embarrassment? Do the heydays of a school that won a national championship less than a decade ago remain in the past? Are the Badgers a cautionary tale for other programs?

Eleven wins in two years, no second half run, dwindling crowds, struggles to hold onto players are all issues separately that can be tinkered or fixed. Together they border on a crisis. Accepting or not caring is a much bigger deal, however.

It says a lot about where the Wisconsin program is currently that the belief of doing nothing - reinforcing Alvarez's reputation that he doesn't care about hockey, that historical losing is acceptable in men's college hockey because it's not football or basketball - can be scarier than making a drastic change.

As entertaining as Eaves' can be, seeing "It's a similar story. We've talked at times during this year about being close, getting over the hump, flirting with the girl, asking her to dance. We didn't get the timely goal tonight," (an honest to God quote from Wisconsin's 3-1 loss to Michigan State earlier this month) again and again begins to feel hollow and generic like one of those luxury apartments.

Both the best and worst news for Eaves is that the Wisconsin name still means enough to get elite recruits after two years where the win totals do not combine to the next worst season the program has had since the mid-1960s.

Not everything is doom and gloom and problems are easily identified. Winning changes the situation. There are pieces still around for a program fix even after all those that left.

Whether or not Eaves gets a third chance to make it a Great Day for Hockey again in Madison and fix an unbalanced roster that gets worse with every four-year recruiting cycle with winning, the biggest overhaul for whoever the person in charge of the Badgers will be earning back the trust of its fans that have chosen to make a stand by not showing up at all.

Something has to change to bring them back and brighten up the passion.  Leaving Wisconsin fans lamenting for the good old days of when the school gave a crap about its men's hockey program would be the biggest problem, a black eye for the sport.

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --