Surprise runs, or first-time runs, to the Frozen Four have become a pleasantly common experience over the last decade of college hockey. There have been the unforgettable Cinderella stories of Bemidji State and RIT that captured the country’s attention for a short period of time, shunning the notion that small schools can’t run with the big boys when the calendar turns to March and April.
Often times those runs have been one-and-done occurrences, with teams or leagues retreating to national anonymity in the seasons that follow. But two of the schools that reached the Frozen Four for the first time in program history have managed to use those appearances on the final weekend as a springboard for sustainable excellence and perennial national relevance.
Notre Dame, which reached its first Frozen in 2008, and Miami, a team that first reached the final weekend for its first time in 2009, have used those appearances to jumpstart recruiting and solidify a culture of excellence.
Having reached the Frozen Four and National Championship game for the first time in program history, Ferris State now embarks on the effort to determine whether this was a once-in-a-blue-moon foray into national relevance, or an Irish- or Redhawks-like springboard to the big leagues.
Senior defenseman and second-team All-American Chad Billins believes it’s the latter.
“I think that now the guys have some experience and some confidence, we’re honored to be able to be seniors in the dressing room,” he said. “Hopefully, we taught them how to play the game and how to play Bulldog hockey, as some people call it. I think it’s a special group of guys in that room and I think it will keep going when we’re gone.”
Coach Bob Daniels saw that trend begin a few years ago, as his teams have earned first-round byes in three consecutive seasons and came a within perhaps a single victory of reaching the NCAA Tournament in 2010.
“I think last year we had a bye in the first round of the playoffs,” Daniels said. “The year before last we had a bye. And we’ve been a good team for quite a while now – it’s just not on the national scene maybe.”
Daniels recognizes, however, that the scale by which his program is measured has changed with a trip to the national championship game.
“I think you say to yourself, okay, we can do this,” Daniels said. “So it does change our standard. It was good, but it wasn’t like we were saving the free world, we can do this. We’ve always felt we could be a very good team, but now I feel that we can do it on a national stage. It’s so tough to do this year in and year out, but it’s certainly our goal next year is to duplicate.”
Reflecting on how many key pieces return and the growth that players like Jordie Johnston and Blair Riley have seen as upperclassmen in recent years, Daniels believes that the stars could be aligned for another strong season.
“I think there’s the ability level there to have another very good year,” Daniels said. “Now it’s whether we’re willing to do all of the things that this team was willing to do. Only time will tell that. I’m really interested to see how we respond to this, if there’s going to be some kind of hangover or if we’re able to keep pressing forward. That’s going to be our challenge, not only for the players, but also for the coaches. Can we take this and keep moving this thing in that direction and keep it at this level?”
Echoing his coach’s sentiments, forward Jordie Johnston named his roommate, Kyle Bonis, and freshman netminder C.J. Motte, who played well in early duty before senior Taylor Nelson grabbed the reins and played his way on to the All-America First Team, as key catalysts for the 2012-13 Bulldogs.
“We saw Bonis, how he played this weekend,” Johnston said. “He’s a machine. He’s going to be unreal for them next year. And Motte’s quite a goalie. He’ll step into Nelly’s role pretty well. They’ll be a great team next year.”
And Johnston believes that this year’ success will breed future successes beyond the promising immediate future.
“That’s what we’re so proud of, that we were able to be on a team that kind of started the ball rolling for the program,” Johnston said. “Because now there’s going to be kids who want to come to Ferris now. And that’s something we’re really proud of.”
Whether the Bulldogs can play their way to Pittsburgh remains to be seen, but it’s worth noting that there was no talk of this team being an underdog after they lost to Boston College. On the big stage, this didn’t look like a coach or a team that didn’t belong in the spotlight. It looked, rather, like a program ready to contend for another championship in the final year of the CCHA and a program that could be poised to carry the WCHA’s banner once the realignment process is complete.
The Bulldogs are ready to keep playing Bulldog hockey off the ice in the coming months, and that they’ll keep heads up and pushing forward even if they’re not taking the ice in the Frozen Four next year. Having witnessed a true perennial powerhouse up close and personally on Saturday night, they know what it takes to sustain success.
“I think Boston College is special,” Daniels said. “For them to win three out of five, I mean, that’s something. That says a lot. I believe Jerry York deserves all the credit for that and his staff. It’s wonderful what they’ve done. I think it’s somewhat unprecedented and it’s going to be hard to duplicate.
“But for our own selves, I feel we’ve been pretty good for a while, and I think we’ll continue to be good.”