Madison's proud hockey heritage begins a new era this month. The Madison Capitols -- a 23-man squad of 16- to 20-year-olds -- will play the first game of their inaugural United States Hockey League season at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Oct. 18. The team's first five games, including Saturday's season-opening 4-3 loss to the Muskegon Lumberjacks, are on the road because of scheduling conflicts at the arena.
Although this is a new USHL franchise, the name has been around for three decades. Between 1984 and 1995, a different version of the Capitols was part of the league, which now boasts 18 teams and is considered the pinnacle of U.S. junior hockey. A dozen players who skated in Madison during those seasons wound up in the National Hockey League; the Capitols also pioneered AAA junior hockey in Wisconsin, emerging as a national standard-bearer.
"This area has always supported hockey at all levels," says Tom Garrity, managing partner of Madtown Hockey LLC -- part of the Capitols' new ownership/investment group, which also includes Minnesota Wild defenseman and former University of Wisconsin standout Ryan Suter.
Capitols officials were in the process of creating a charitable arm of the team when Madison native Bob Suter, a member of 1980's "Miracle on Ice" U.S. Olympic hockey team and the godfather of local youth hockey, suffered a fatal heart attack on Sept. 9. That quickly led to the establishment of the Bob Suter Memorial Fund, to help more kids play hockey. "Bob's mantra was, 'It's all about the kids,'" team president Ed Chamberlain says. "Bob's the guy who took hockey to a new level in Madison."
Chamberlain and coach Luke Strand (who skated for the old USHL Capitols) intend to maintain that local connection. At least eight current players hail from Wisconsin, including Oregon's Alec Vanko and Stoughton's Mitch Hults.
The Capitols went 2-1 during the preseason, and ticket sales have been steady. (Info and tickets at madcapshockey.com.) Bob Suter will be honored during the home opener against the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, and plenty of fan giveaways are scheduled.
"We have a five-year plan, and we're going to build," Chamberlain says. "Look at the Mallards. It took time to get to where they're at today. They've done a great job, and if we can have half that success, we will have done our job."