MEET THE NEW WCHA: Ferris State could be a big dog in new league
The Western Collegiate Hockey Association is changing dramatically next season, losing six teams and adding six more.
With that in mind, The Pioneer will be giving readers an in-depth look at the WCHA this summer so fans can familiarize themselves with the new members (and become reacquainted with the old ones) before the season begins in October.
Our series continues this week in Michigan with the Ferris State Bulldogs.
BEMIDJI -- Ferris State may be the new kid on the block in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, but thanks to the consistent presence of head coach Bob Daniels behind the bench the Bulldogs are a known commodity to almost everyone in the college hockey world.
"Bob's an institution there," Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore said of Daniels, who will be entering his 22nd season as head coach of the school in Big Rapids, Mich. "He's built that program into a really solid one."
In many ways, Bemidji State and Ferris State are kindred spirits. One might consider Ferris State to be BSU's Michigan doppelganger.
Both schools are located in towns of less than 15,000. Like Bemidji, Big Rapids is fairly isolated from a major population center (it's about 200 miles from Detroit). Like the Beavers, the Bulldogs play their other sports in Division II (the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Conference).
But, most importantly, both BSU and FSU are small schools that have found success at the highest level of college hockey without necessarily attracting the big-time recruits.
The Bulldogs made the Frozen Four in 2012, getting all the way to the national title game before losing to eventual champion Boston College in a game that was closer than the final 4-1 score indicates. The Bulldogs went 26-13-5 that year and won their second Central Collegiate Hockey Association title -- all without having a single NHL draft pick on the team.
Last season the Bulldogs went a more pedestrian 16-16-5 overall and lost to Ohio State in the CCHA quarterfinals.
But don't think that average season will dampen the enthusiasm of Bulldog fans this season. According to Serratore Ferris State has one of the most rabid fan bases in the new league. The Bulldogs are tough to play in Big Rapids -- they've gone 53-28-12 over the past five years -- mostly because they can make the under 3,000 fans crammed into the 39-year-old Ewigleben Arena seem like four times that.
"They're really tough to play there," Serratore said. "That rink is very shallow and hard to play on. They're a physical team that knows every nook and cranny of that place.
"And the fans are right on top of you. It can be an intimidating place to play."
That's one of the things Serratore said he appreciates about the WCHA this season -- at almost every school, hockey is not just some "other" sport.
"I think that's the best thing about this league," he said. "Hockey is the thing to do in all of these communities. At Ferris State they know hockey much like they do here in Bemidji."
If last season's results are any indication Ferris State fans may not have to wait long for their team to return to the upper echelon.
The Bulldogs lost four seniors to graduation, including leading scorers Kyle Bonis and Travis Ouellette, but return capable scorers in Garrett Thompson, Corey Kane and Jason Binkley. The Bulldogs also have a solid goaltender in C.J. Motte, who started 35 of 37 games as a sophomore and went 15-15-5 with a 2.19 goals against average and a 92.7 save percentage.
The Beavers travel to Big Rapids to take on the Bulldogs Nov. 8 and Nov. 9. The Bulldogs make the return trip to Bemidji Feb. 14 and 15, 2014.