March 7, 2012

Bulldog Hockey Featured In Detroit News

Note: The article below appeared in today's (March 7) Detroit News and can be found online at this website linK: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20120307/SPORTS07/203070354/Small-Ferris-gets-big-lift-from-hockey-fans?odyssey=mod|newswell|text|Sports|s

Small Ferris Gets Big Lift From Hockey, Fans
By Dave Goricki

Big Rapids
— It actually looks like winter at Ferris State University, where a few feet of snow are piled up near the entrance of the Ewigleben Ice Arena.

A clear path is needed with sellout crowds becoming the norm for the Bulldogs, ranked No. 1 in the nation earlier this season and a legitimate threat to win the Division I national hockey championship, despite being a Division II school in every other sport.

"Everyone's asking, 'Where's Ferris State?' Now, we're putting our name on the map," said Ferris State sophomore defenseman Scott Czarnowczan of Macomb. "We're making a name for ourselves, and it's exciting."

Big Rapids — about an hour north of Grand Rapids — has fallen in love with the Bulldogs. Signs in front of businesses have messages such as "Go Bulldogs! Good Luck in the Playoffs" and "Support Bulldogs Hockey."

The CCHA quarterfinals get under way Friday with Ferris State (22-9-5) hosting Bowling Green in a best-of-three series. The winner advances to Joe Louis Arena on March 16-17 for the CCHA championships.

The Bulldogs are 11-1-4 in their last 16 games and are currently ranked No. 2 behind Boston College. They won the CCHA regular-season title for just the second time in school history; the first was 2002-03, when they won a school-record 31 games. They have never won the CCHA tournament title.

Fans from this community of 12,000 — which grows to about 26,000 during the school year — have jammed the quaint 2,500-seat arena, which has a low ceiling and can be loud and raucous during games. The boisterous student section, called the Dawg Pound, is behind the opponent's goal for two of the three periods.

"I think it's sweeter being a small school and beating the big-school bullies," said Ferris State senior forward Jordie Johnston, who leads the Bulldogs with 17 goals. "Being as small as we are is great. We have some of the best fans in the country. They come every night. They are loud and really back us. They don't care that we don't have the biggest rink.

"It's really about how tight the community is, how tight the whole school is. That's really the mentality of this team. We all play for each other."

Ferris State seniors Lexi Bishop and Sara Thompson traveled to Kalamazoo to watch their Bulldogs play Western Michigan on Feb. 24 with a big group of other students.

"It's a big deal," Bishop said. "We're No. 1 in the nation and we're a Division II school. All the professors talk about it. Everyone knows what's going on with this team."

Unexpected run

Division II schools have won hockey championships in Division I before, including Minnesota-Duluth last year with an overtime win over Michigan. Northern Michigan (1991) and Lake Superior State (1992, 1993) won national titles in hockey.

The difference between Minnesota-Duluth and Ferris is that Duluth has a roster loaded with NHL draft picks, like Michigan and Notre Dame.

Ferris State had solid seasons in the past few years, coming just short of earning an NCAA tournament bid in 2010, then having a defenseman fall down, leading to an overtime goal by Western Michigan in the third and deciding game of a CCHA quarterfinal series last season.

With All-Americans Pat Neagle, a goalie, and Zach Redmond, a defenseman, gone, the Bulldogs were picked to finish ninth in the CCHA by league coaches this season.

So how did a team, predicted to finish near the bottom of the conference standings, become one of the premier teams in the nation?

The Bulldogs are a bunch of blue-collar players who sacrifice their bodies blocking shots, taking away the passing lanes and shooting lanes, and going heavy on the forecheck and backcheck in the corners.

Taylor Nelson (17-4-3, .926 save percentage, 2.02 goals-against average) took over Neagle's spot in goal and has become one of the best in the league.

"It's a great feeling to be able to play the game I love," said Nelson, who split time with Nagle in 2009-10 before losing the job to him last season. "I'm really proud of the way the guys have played in front of me this year and the steps we've made as a program. It's nice how everyone here has accepted their role; that's the first step in creating a winning organization."

Nelson added: "The community and students have really gotten behind us. There are some games I get chills go through my spine because of the crowd. The top of this place gets blown off because the sound echoes off the roof and down to the ice. And all of this (success) has created an excellent buzz around campus, from the professors on down."

Daniels' view

Bob Daniels, now in his 20th season as head coach at Ferris State, is enjoying this ride much more than the 2002-03 team that went 31-10-1, won the CCHA regular-season title and earned its first NCAA tournament appearance.

That team had one of the league's elite players in Chris Kunitz, who led the CCHA in scoring, then helped the Anaheim Ducks and Pittsburgh Penguins win Stanley Cup titles. This year's team runs four lines, all capable of scoring goals.

"That 2002-03 team kind of took on a life of its own," Daniels said after practice Monday. "I had never been through it, and I really didn't appreciate it when it was happening; I was nervous all the time. I don't think I really ever enjoyed it until about July.

"It's been very gratifying so far this season. This year from Christmas on I've kind of just enjoyed being with the players, enjoyed the ride. This time, I kind of let the guys enjoy it, let them embrace it. And, in some respects, for our staff it's a little bit of validation. It's going to help cement the program, doing it (CCHA title) a second time."

Daniels, a Livonia native, grew up a Red Wings fan, attending games at Olympia Stadium in the 1960s and 1970s when his father, Pete, was a penalty-box timekeeper.

Daniels loves to golf and fish and says Big Rapids has been the ideal place for him and wife Leslie to raise their three children — Jenna, who runs cross country and is a pre-med major at Ferris; Pete, a junior at Big Rapids High who plays hockey for Tim Blashill, younger brother of Red Wings assistant coach Jeff Blashill; and Sara, a fifth-grader.

In the past 16 games, the Bulldogs have outscored opponents 54-34 and have capitalized on 26.4 percent of their power-play chances (19-of-72).

Daniels can't wait for the playoffs to start.

"I didn't think Jordie (Johnston) would have this type of year, but I knew Kyle Bonis (15 goals) was a goal scorer," he said.

Daniels appreciates his players' attitudes.

"Sometimes when you have draft picks, they have one foot out the door," Daniels said. "Our kids who come here have one goal, and that's to win.

"We've accomplished a lot so far, but now it's a whole different opportunity for us. We have a variety of goals right in front of us — getting to Joe Louis, getting an NCAA tournament bid, winning a regional. It's a very exciting time."

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