For Wisconsin Badgers’ Mick Messner, love of hockey started on Madison neighborhood rink
EAST LANSING, Mich. — The pristine ice surface left overnight was so inviting that there were days when Mick Messner woke up early at his family’s Near West Side Madison home to get in a few minutes of skating and stickhandling before heading to school.
Other times, he and his friends from the neighborhood would peek out the front window and see some kids playing hockey on the rink, then hustle to get skates on and join them.
“That’s where I learned to have fun with it, and that’s why I like the game so much,” Messner said. “Playing out there is a lot of fun. It brings you back to when you were younger.”
Messner, now a freshman center for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team, can consider himself as one of the lucky kids who almost always had access to ice during the winter because of what was right outside his front door.
He grew up in Madison’s Regent neighborhood, across the street from the Hillington Triangle Park where volunteers help maintain an ice rink that is, as one neighbor put it, straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Snowbanks form the border around the outside, with Christmas lights dangling from above providing a bit of illumination for hockey games that go past sundown.
Messner played for the West Madison Polar Caps, Madison West High School and the Madison Capitols junior program in his hockey journey to UW, but he started his education on the outdoor rink.
“There was always a hockey game going on,” said Glen Messner, Mick’s father. “You’d drive home from somewhere and you’d pull in the driveway and Mick would look over there and there’d be four or five guys skating. He’d go on inside and put his skates on, even if it was only for 20 minutes.”
Messner’s family had a hand in creating the winter scene. Mick Messner’s grandfather, Mick Baltes, and Glen Messner provided the plumbing work in the fall of 2005 to get water where it was needed and keep hoses from freezing.
But it was a true neighborhood effort, with a fundraiser back then still putting money today toward the purchase of shovels to clear the ice.
As the Hillington Triangle Park name suggests, the rink is bounded by three streets — Norwood Place, Hillington Way and Hillington Green — with houses overlooking things on each side.
The rink is part of the city’s Adopt Ice Partnership, through which volunteers help maintain rinks in neighborhood parks to provide skating opportunities.
At Hillington Triangle, it has brought kids out of the house in the cold months.
“Before we had the rink, you didn’t see any kids from November until April, and then you’re like, ‘boy, the kid really grew,’” said Wally Block, a neighbor to the Messner family. “But then you see the kids through the winter. The kids can go out after dinner. And skating’s a great activity because even if it’s zero (degrees), if you’re moving you stay warm.”
Messner has never had to venture too far from his home rink in his hockey career, a rarity by the time players get to college. He played his freshman and sophomore years in high school at West and then, because he was drafted by the United States Hockey League’s Capitols, also played his junior hockey years in Madison.
Coming to UW was never really a question for Messner when the opportunity presented itself; he said he always wanted to play for the Badgers.
“It’s pretty unique, I have to say,” Messner said. “It’s pretty amazing to be able to stay here and be able to play in my whole backyard.”
Messner enters the Badgers’ Big Ten Conference series at Michigan State on Friday and Saturday after his most productive weekend of the season. He scored in each game of UW’s split at Minnesota, pulling him into a tie for sixth on the team with five goals.
The fourth-liner is the only one of the team’s top four centers who has won more faceoffs than he has lost, and he won two critical ones on third-period penalty kills in a tie game last Saturday.
The Badgers have started to see Messner as a reliable option for key situations.
“We knew he would work,” UW coach Tony Granato said. “We knew he’d fit into our team with all of his intangibles and personality and work ethic and understanding what Badger hockey was, growing up in this area. His performance and the big plays he’s made at big times have been outstanding.”
Messner has centered five different wingers this season, not to mention the extra forwards in the lineup that have taken turns on his line. But he said he has developed a better understanding of the kind of energy role he’s being asked to play.
“The first thing that comes to mind is supporting each other,” Messner said when asked what has grown in his game. “Five guys, tight, working as a unit. And that’s what I thought we’ve done a lot better.”
Messner tries to get back to skate on the Hillington Triangle rink every year, but it’s mostly used by the neighborhood’s next generation of kids these days.
Duties of caring for the rink get passed around to the families who get the most use out of it, said Block, a UW-Madison professor who has three children playing in the Polar Caps youth program.
One of them wears a red Badgers jersey with No. 12 on the back — Messner’s number — while stickhandling under the lights.
“The nice thing about it is Mick and those kids, the first generation, set a culture where the bigger kids would work the little kids into the game,” Block said. “It’s a really nice atmosphere.”