Badger hockey’s No. 1 fan

Seven-year-old Jaxton Ernst can’t get enough
Tony Granato and Jaxton Ernst
Tony Granato, head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers men's ice hockey team, meets his team's biggest fan, Jaxton Ernst, who plays for the Sun Prairie Mites hockey team. (Photo courtesy of Erik Ernst)

Jaxton Ernst was six weeks old when he first had his photo taken with Bucky Badger.

His mom, Catherine Ernst, was napping. His dad, Erik Ernst, a hockey fan of long and fervent standing, scooped Jaxton up and off they went to a UW women’s hockey game.

Catherine, on awakening, sent Erik a text.

“Where are you guys?”

Hence the photo with Bucky.

Could it have dawned on Catherine there was a smoke machine in her future?

We’ll get to the smoke machine. First, let’s hear from Erik, promotion manager for PBS Wisconsin, on the genesis of a boy’s love for a sport.

“Jaxton’s a typical little boy,” Erik says. “His mind is going a million directions. But for whatever reason, hockey is the one thing that has drawn his attention consistently his entire life. Since he was little he’ll sit and watch an entire game. We’ve gone to [UW] men’s games since he was a year or two old.”

Jaxton today is 7 and is a first grader in Sun Prairie. It was a little more than three years ago — fall 2016 — when a chance meeting opened the door for Jaxton to become Badgers hockey’s biggest fan.

Jaxton and his dad were leaving a UW women’s game when Erik spotted Tony Granato — then the newly hired coach of the Badger men — ascending the steps and called a hello.

“He didn’t just wave and keep walking,” Erik says. “He sat down next to Jaxton and asked if he was a Badger fan and if he went to the men’s games.”

The conversation continued and then Granato turned to Erik. “You should call the hockey office and bring Jaxton to a practice.”

Figuring Granato was just being polite, Erik didn’t pursue it. Two weeks later, walking on State Street, he once again encountered the coach.

“Erik, have you called the hockey office?”

The visit was arranged.

“Coach Granato greeted us,” Erik says, “and brought Jaxton right into the locker room to meet the players. He put us right next to the glass for practice and Jaxton banged on the glass. At the end he invited Jaxton onto the ice for a picture with the entire team.”

The relationship has continued, and deepened. There have been other practices, and now that Jaxton is playing hockey himself — with the Sun Prairie Mites — he brings his skates and gets out on the ice when formal practice is over.

“The Badger hockey family has really embraced Jaxton and made him feel like part of the team,” Erik says. “It has been really special to watch.”

Erik and Jaxton have Friday and Saturday night season tickets, and women’s season tickets as well.

“We’re among the first people in the Kohl Center every night,” Erik says. “He finds his spot right next to the bench for warm-ups and pounds on the glass.”

A favorite moment is when the smoke machine at the Kohl Center is fired up for the Badger player introductions. Two years ago, Jaxton informed an usher — he’s befriended several — that he was going to ask Santa Claus for a smoke machine for the “rink” in his family’s basement.

“Despite his mom’s objections,” Erik says, “he did receive a smoke machine.” You can view the moment on YouTube.

“He’s basically ruined our basement shooting pucks against the wall,” Erik says. “From upstairs we hear him yelling out the players’ names and trying to replicate their moves on the ice.”

Those players have stayed friends even after leaving Madison. On a family vacation to South Carolina, Erik and Jaxton attended a game in Charleston and were spotted by former Badger Tim Davison, playing for the South Carolina Stingrays.

“He called out Jaxton’s name,” Erik says, “and gave him a stick at the end of the game.”

At the United Center in Chicago, when Wisconsin was playing Notre Dame, Jaxton spotted Trent Frederic, a former Badger visiting his old teammates. “He went to give Trent a high five,” Erik says. “Instead of a high five Trent grabbed him out of the stands and brought him into the locker room of the United Center.”

Erik and Catherine have talked to Jaxson about how well the players handle themselves, their commitments off the ice to school and the community — finding a hockey-school-life balance.

“It’s opened up some good conversations,” Erik says.

At 7, Jaxton could be forgiven for just wanting to fire up the smoke machine. He was a little shy last week when his dad arranged a telephone chat with me — “his first media interview.”

Still, he did fine.

“Jaxton, what do you like best about playing hockey?”

“Doing some moves,” he said, “passing the puck to my teammates and just having fun out there.”

“What’s best about the games at the Kohl Center?”

“Watching warm-ups,” Jaxton said, “cheering loud, pounding the glass and having fun.”

I want to be 7 again.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.