There’s something incredibly right about Union and Ferris State being matched up in the first semifinal at Thursday’s Frozen Four at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
After all, both arrived in Tampa without a single NHL-drafted player on the roster, a rarity for a team advancing to college hockey’s biggest stage. Both the Bulldogs and the Dutchmen represent institutions that many casual fans might struggle to locate on a map (for the record, Ferris is in Big Rapids, Mich. while Union is located in Schenectady, N.Y.).
“It’s a small school,” Union goaltender Troy Grosenick said, who hadn’t heard of the school until it started recruiting him. “Kind of an ‘everbody knows everybody’ type of feel. The campus itself is unbelievable. It’s a cool liberal arts college, where there’s a lot of focus on academics. Everybody’s a small, close-knit family.”
Union and Ferris State will each be making their first Frozen Four appearances on Thursday afternoon, after winning the regular-season titles in their respective conferences.
And, by advancing to the Frozen Four, both schools took a step towards answering questions about their respective conferences.
Union, for its part, is the first ECAC Hockey school to advance to the Frozen Four since Cornell in 2003, ending the longest drought for any of college hockey’s major conferences.
“We’re extremely grateful to be here,” Union head coach Rick Bennett said. “2003 is a long time, and I know there’s a lot of talk about that through recruiting — this league’s better than that league, and that league’s better than this league — it’s nice to put that to bed a little bit. I think there’s way too much put on that, what league’s better than what league.”
One difference between Union’s conference and the other major conferences in the country is that the majority of ECAC Hockey’s members do not offer athletic scholarships. In addition to the six Ivy League institutions that are members of the conference, Union is a non-scholarship program, having reclassified its hockey program from Division III in 1991.
“I know we are a ‘financial need’ school,” Bennett said. “Sometimes we get players, and sometimes we don’t. We don’t worry about the players that we don’t get. We’re just happy with the players that we do get here.”
And, while former school president Roger Hull famously boasted in 2004 that he was “very proud” when the Dutchmen achieved a .400 winning percentage, the standards of performance within the program have always been higher. And, while Union’s advancement to the Frozen Four is a landmark for the program, Bennett doesn’t frame it terms of small schools.
“It’s nice to see, per se, the ‘smaller schools’ make it to this stage,” Bennett added, ” We don’t really consider ourselves a smaller school in terms of hockey.”
Ferris State, meanwhile, is a member of the CCHA, a conference that has been represented at the Frozen Four every year since 2007. However, after the 2012-13 season, the CCHA will be no more.
Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State will join Minnesota, Wisconsin and Penn State in the Big Ten’s newly-formed hockey conference, Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan will join the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and Notre Dame will head to Hockey East.
The five remaining schools — Ferris, Alaska, Bowling Green, Northern Michigan, and Lake Superior — will join Alaska Anchorage, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech and Minnesota State in the WCHA.
While the new WCHA will remain rich in history — Lake Superior, Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech and Bowling Green have all won NCAA titles, along with perennial Division II power Bemidji — it’s short on current powers. In that regard, Ferris’ CCHA regular season title and trip to the Frozen Four goes a long way toward showing that the new WCHA will be just fine.
“We all look forward, enthusiastically to joining the WCHA,” Ferris State head coach Bob Daniels said. “Yes, a lot of our schools are ‘mid majors,’ but one of the things we all have in common is that we’re housed in communities where there’s a tremendous passion for the university hockey program. You know you’re going to have a passionate following, and we’re excited about that.”
That having been said, the Frozen Four berth isn’t about making a statement for the Bulldogs’ future conference. It’s about the Bulldogs.
“It wasn’t a mantra,” Daniels said. “It wasn’t something we ever wanted to talk about: ‘Hey, let’s go out and do this or that because we’re joining a different league’ or such. We’re still part of the CCHA, we still love being part of the CCHA. For us, it’s just a reward to have a good season in the midst of so many good programs.”
Still, Daniels acknowledges that the presence of both Ferris State and Union at the Frozen Four says a great deal about the nature of college hockey, which will continue into the sport’s future.
“Hockey, I think as much as any sport, affords schools of any size the opportunity to be successful,” Daniels said. “The fact you have 21 players dressed and pretty much all players see playing time allows for teams that don’t necessarily have the ‘name’ players, so to speak, but have the depth and the real team spirit to forge ahead and move on.”