Before Madison Packer ever worked a shift on behalf of the University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team she revealed an uncommon personality.
There was her doggedness: Packer had reconstructive surgery on her right knee — repairing tears to the anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and meniscus — on May 10 prior to her freshman season in 2010. She was back on the ice two months later and made her UW debut less than five months removed from the procedure.
Upon being discharged from the hospital, Packer was instructed to do rehab exercises three times a day for 30 minutes. She got to her home and immediately began doing nine sessions daily for 45 minutes.
“She’s always had this tenacity,” her father, Greg, said.
There also was her inner spirit: Packer lists Ralph Waldo Emerson as her role model and his many transcendental insights — “Life is a journey, not a destination” and “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm” — are part of her everyday vocabulary.
In the family garage back home in Birmingham, Mich., Packer has a storage locker dedicated to her passions. Tucked inside are sticks, skates, pads and pucks. Plastered on the walls are layers of inspirational messages, the most meaningful of which embodies the adage that the name on the front of the jersey is more important than the one on the back.
“Words are important to her,” her mother, Laura, said.
Mix that willfulness with a worldly perspective and a gift for writing and you have one of the emotional pillars of the second-ranked Badgers. A senior right winger, Packer is the active career leader in goals, assists and points, but her value simply cannot be measured by the obvious.
Heading into a Western Collegiate Hockey Association series with Bemidji State at LaBahn Arena Friday and Sunday, UW coach Mark Johnson was asked about the strengths of his club. One stood out.
“I really enjoy the chemistry,” he said. “It’s been that way since day one.”
That’s a tribute to a core of upperclassmen that includes goaltender Alex Rigsby, the senior captain, and her assistants, Packer, senior defenseman Kelly Jaminski and junior center Blayre Turnbull.
The Badgers (12-2-2, 8-2-2 in the WCHA) don’t have the star power of their six NCAA Frozen Four entries since 2006 and their roster is tilted toward young — six freshmen and seven sophomores — but they own the longest unbeaten streak in the nation at 12 games (10-0-2).
Packer, a rambunctious sort who typically works on a line with junior left winger Karley Sylvester and sophomore center Erika Sowchuk, loves the balanced concept.
“We have a lot of different components, a lot of different people that can do a lot of different things,” she said, mindful that nine players have winning goals. “It’s sometimes good not to have a big stud out there because teams kind of target that player.”
Packer, who has 39 goals, 49 assists and 88 points in 122 career games, echoes the chemistry theme. She compared it to 2011 when, led by the indomitable Meghan Duggan, the Badgers won their fourth NCAA title.
“When you get along off the ice, things on the ice are going to work out,” said Packer, whose preseason advice from Duggan was to “be kind, be passionate about what you’re doing, and be dedicated to your teammates.”
Few in UW history have had a more star-crossed existence than Packer, the reigning WCHA Player of the Week. She’s had multiple knee injuries and “a couple concussions here and there.” Last season she suffered a gruesome laceration to her groin that required 16 stitches, but didn’t miss a game.
“Nothing that I’ve gone through thus far is as bad as what a lot of other people go through,” she said.
Packer is a journalism major whose creative writing has been recognized in class contests. Her gift was born of personal tragedy: While serving as captain of her Triple A midget squad in Detroit in 2009, Packer returned from playing for Team USA in the Under-18 World Championships — from winning a gold medal — to learn that one of the younger players in the program had committed suicide.
“It hit me like a freight train,” Packer said.
As a way of coping, Packer began to write about the emotions she felt. That gave way to stories and ideas and the vast collection of motivational books she has at her campus apartment. That evolved into a private journal that she fills with thoughts before every game “just to clear my head.”
“It was good personal therapy for me,” Packer said of her writing, “and I turned out to be decent at it.”