There’s a pretty good chance that if you talk to the coach of the No. 1 team in the country about that ranking, most weeks, you’ll hear that it’s nice, but that the only ranking that really matters is the one that comes at the end of the season.
Ferris State head coach Bob Daniels was all set to be one of those coaches when he saw his Bulldogs ranked atop both national polls on February 13.
“My initial thought, when I first heard that we were No. 1, was ‘Okay, no big deal.’” Daniels said. “It doesn’t really matter. That was my initial thought for the first two hours.”
After that, however, Daniels saw exactly how much it mattered.
“I was shocked at the attention it brought,” said Daniels, who’s in his 20th season behind the bench in Big Rapids, Mich. “I was just shocked at how many different people, all of a sudden started calling. Number two, the reaction from the fans and community here really took me aback. I was surprised at how excited people were. It probably does mean a little more for us than it would for anybody else.”
It’s not all that surprising that a No. 1 national ranking would mean more at Ferris State than it might elsewhere. After all, hockey is the lone Division I sport at the school, which has an enrollment of under 15,000 students on its campus some 57 miles north of Grand Rapids. The team hasn’t been in the NCAA tournament since its lone appearance in 2003, when two-time Stanley Cup winner Chris Kunitz (currently with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins) led the team to a CCHA regular-season title with 35 goals and 44 assists. A No. 1 national ranking is certainly a more noteworthy occurrence at Ferris than at perennial powers like Boston College, Michigan, or even Minnesota, which claimed the top national ranking in November for the first time since 2008.
“It’s been a really exciting experience,” said Bulldogs defenseman Chad Billins, one of two senior co-captains along with fellow blueliner Aaron Schmit. “I’ve never really experienced anything like this before. You hear people talking about it when you’re walking by in the cafeteria, and when you’re heading to classes and stuff like that, and people tend to recognize you, because it is a smaller campus, and you’re in classes with the same people.”
“It’s definitely been something else,” said senior Jordie Johnston, the team’s leading scorer with 32 points (17g, 15a) in 34 games. “Our student section is definitely one of the best that we’ve been lucky enough to see, and they come out and support us every night, especially now. It’s incredible. The townspeople have been amazing, too. It’s been crazy.”
It just might be, however, that as big as Ferris’ accomplishment is for the fans and community in Big Rapids, it might be even bigger in college hockey. After all, Ferris plays in a conference, the CCHA, that will not exist after the 2012-13 season. In the fall of 2013, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State will be in the Big Ten, Miami and Western Michigan will be in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, Notre Dame will be in Hockey East, and Ferris will be off to join a WCHA that will be devoid of traditional powerhouses.
A conference made up of Ferris, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State, Bowling Green, Alaska, Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech and Minnesota State may not carry much cache, but the Bulldogs’ success this year can be seen as an encouraging sign that college hockey’s smaller programs can survive, and even thrive, on the new national landscape.
Not that Daniels has any doubt about that.
“I believe there will always be a place in college hockey for the smaller schools,” Daniels said, “the Division II schools and Division III schools that sponsor Division I hockey. It’s the nature of the sport: small schools, whether it be Lake Superior State, whether it be Minnesota Duluth, there’s always been a place for the small schools and there will continue to be. I think what will happen in our league is that it will be no different than in ECAC Hockey, for instance. We’re going to have teams that are going to be players on a national scale, and it will rotate between programs. It’s not going to be one team every single year. You’re going to see – whether it be Northern Michigan, Tech, ourselves – there’s going to be one or two teams that are going to be top 15 in the country. We probably won’t come out with two teams in the top 10 to start the year, but at the end of the year, there’ll always be at least one program, if not two, in the top 10.”
Part of the reason for Daniels’ confidence is derived from another fact that makes the Bulldogs’ reign atop the polls even more stunning: there is not a single NHL draft pick on the Ferris State roster. The same thing was true of Ferris’ 2003 team (Kunitz signed with the Anaheim Ducks as an undrafted free agent), and while an entirely undrafted roster isn’t part of Daniels’ strategy, it does seem to work well for him.
“We kind of have found our niche in the very next level below those guys,” Daniels said. “Not to say that we wouldn’t want those kids, but it might be the fact that we don’t have any on our team. We do have a collection of very talented players, but maybe because of their size or maybe one part of their game isn’t quite what the scouts are looking for [they weren't drafted], but they’re not too far off. What that allows to happen in the locker room is to have a little different mindset within the team. It’s probably, for us in our situation, a healthy thing for us.
“We’ve had draft choices here in the past. One of the things that has occurred to me over the years with those kids – and it’s human nature – but they always have one eye toward the future. At times, with those draft choices who have come here, everything is viewed through the prism of ‘how is this going to affect me down the road when I try to become an NHLer?’ instead of just being here and putting all their heart soul into the moment. It’s like they’re living in the future, and it affects their current play.”
That hasn’t been a problem for these Bulldogs, who have been defined by their work ethic.
“We’ve always been a hardworking bunch,” said junior forward Jordie Johnston. “The team is really gelling this year. Everyone is accepting their roles and not trying to do too much or take a day off. Everyone knows what they have to do, and they’ve been coming to the rink every day and doing it.”
That attitude will serve the Bulldogs well this weekend when they host Bowling Green in a CCHA quarterfinal series. Ferris was able to capture the CCHA regular-season title on the last weekend in February, but a one-point weekend against Western Michigan dropped the team from the No. 1 spot. These days, the Bulldogs are No. 2 in both polls, but at this point, the old adage is true.
After all, from this point forward, the Bulldogs are playing for the ranking at the end of the season.
Said Billins, “We know we still have some work to do.”