|Wednesday, March 26
Updated: April 2, 6:14 PM ET
NCAAs cap breakout season for Bulldogs
By Sherry Skalko
DETROIT -- It happens all the time.
"Michigan," replies head coach Bob Daniels, who then holds out his hand to represent the bottom peninsula of the state. "Second knuckle from the left."
The second knuckle from the left is Big Rapids, Mich., home to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season champion, the nation's only Division I team with 30 wins (30-9-1), and a first-timer in the NCAA Tournament. Ferris State plays North Dakota Friday at the West Regional in Minneapolis.
Despite their sudden success, the Ferris State Bulldogs didn't all of a sudden pop up on the hockey map.
"We've always been known as competitive, a good, solid program," Daniels said. "Because we weren't in the upper echelon, our strength was being in the CCHA. A lot of players want to play in this league."
Prior to this season, the Bulldogs never finished higher than third in their previous 23 seasons in the CCHA and never won more than 26 games. They don't have a single NHL draft pick on the roster and were picked by the coaches and media to finish ninth in the league this season.
So why is this the year that Ferris State's proud hockey tradition is rising above just being proud? Ask the contractors.
Previously besieged by budget cuts that left the program on the brink of elimination 10 years ago, the university's academic and athletic facilities have received a series of face lifts over the past six years. The improvements have enabled athletic teams to recruit better athletes. The hockey program's digs in Ewigleben Ice Arena, as well as the lobby and press box, also were renovated, but the rink itself -- the dimensions and capacity (a cozy 2,493) -- were left alone.
"Recruits come in and fall in love with the place," Daniels said. "New rinks are too clean. We've got atmosphere. The fans are on top of you, the ceilings are low and the sound reverberates."
Oddly enough, the Bulldogs haven't been able to reap the rewards of their season on the recruiting trail yet.
"The funny thing is we finished all of our recruiting in November, so we're done for next year. It will start showing up in 2004," Daniels said. "In recruiting for next season, there's already a whole different feel. Coaches are more open to us, we get more calls. The reception is real positive wherever we go."
With better players at their disposal, Daniels and his staff have been able change the type of player they recruit. Now, instead of putting emphasis on players with size, they've begun shifting that emphasis toward speed and skill, players who can skate and handle the puck.
The quality of the players they were attracting weren't showing up in the standings and didn't become evident until last season when Bulldogs began popping up on postseason awards lists. Senior second team All-America Rob Collins became the school's first Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalist and was joined by junior winger Chris Kunitz as first team all-conference selections. Defenseman Matt York and goalie Mike Brown were named to the CCHA All-Rookie Team.
But the perception of a team only changes with its record.
The Bulldogs opened this season with a split at home against St. Cloud State, which had finished last year with a 29-11-2 record, a third-place finish in the WCHA and an appearance in the NCAAs. It then rattled off six straight conference wins, before splits with Wayne State and Western Michigan leading into the Nov. 22-23 weekend against Ohio State.
"Ohio State hadn't lost a league game and we swept them," Daniels recalled. "That's when we thought we had an opportunity at the title."
New opportunities bring new challenges, which didn't become evident until Ferris State traveled to Connecticut for the UConn Classic in late December and heard Alabama-Huntsville coach Doug Ross offer the usual platitudes during the pre-tournament press conference.
"He said, 'It's great to be here, too bad we have to face Ferris in the first round.' Well, we had never heard that before," senior captain Troy Milam said. "We were never the top team going into a tournament. We were coming off break, and Alabama-Huntsville came out to play and beat us. It was a very big win for them."
The hunter officially became the hunted.
The Bulldogs won their next three games, outscoring their opponents 20-2, and finished the season on a 20-3-1 run before losing to Michigan in semifinals of the CCHA championship. Kunitz, who enters NCAA play with a school-record 74 points, was named CCHA Player of the Year, and Daniels was named Coach of the Year. The Bulldogs also placed five players on all-conference teams -- Kunitz and Brown on the first team; Milam, defenseman Simon Mangos and center Jeff Legue on the second team.
The only NCAA Tournament experience the Bulldogs have belongs to assistant Drew Famulak, who won a Division I title with Lake Superior State in 1998 and two Division III titles with Wisconsin-Stevens Point. But Daniels isn't worried.
"The pressure is off," he said. "It's single elimination in the NCAAs. Just kick back and let 'er rip. This time of year, coaches get more anal. Overall, it's just hockey."
Though they are miscast as a small school -- Ferris State's student population of 11,074 is larger than CCHA brethren Notre Dame (10,000) and Big Rapids (10,800) -- and their regular-season record earned them a No. 2 seed in the West Regional, the Bulldogs are still an unknown outside hockey circles.
"We're gaining more fans," Daniels said. "We've increased the excitement level in the town."
Is there room on the Bulldogs' bandwagon?
"It's full," Daniels said with a laugh. "I'm kidding. There's always room."
Sherry Skalko is the NHL Editor at ESPN.com.