Team of the Week: Ferris State
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Ferris State is in that murky middle of college hockey, a strong program relatively speaking, in that it's never in the doldrums, has a good coach and strong institutional support. But also, it's not capable of being on top every year. Instead, it has to build towards it, consistently and then wait to catch lightning in a bottle.
"There's the cycles," FSU coach Bob Daniels said. "You like to minimize them. But I can say, we never go into a season thinking it's a rebuild. It's too long a season. You never know. And truthfully, some years you think you've got it made and it doesn't turn out that way. Other years you're worried about it and different kids emerge."
This is one of those years where it was unknown to Daniels. He knew there was talent there, but didn't know if everyone would continue to grow, if some of the scoring options that had off seasons a year ago, would bounce back and be even better.
And he never thought the goalies would have a .975 save percentage at this point.
"Not in my right mind," Daniels said.
But that's what has happened, as Taylor Nelson and freshman C.J. Motte have split time, and helped Ferris State to a 6-0 start, including a two-game sweep of Miami this past weekend.
"It builds confidence, so that's good," Daniels said of the early-season success. "I take it with a grain of salt. We appreciate it, but I've been around long enough to know it's a long season."
Ferris got Motte over schools like Michigan for simple reasons like timing. Michigan had John Gibson lined up, but he bailed on his commitment to go to major junior. By then, Motte had chosen Ferris State.
"Our name is pretty good," Daniels said. "We consistently have 15 to 17 players from our state. We get a lot of good players, and a lot of kids from the state of Michigan.
"We've done a pretty good job of not allowing him to be overwhelmed. But by the same token, any game you'll have breakdowns, and late in the third he's come up with some awful big saves. He had a great one inside three minutes on Reilly Smith (in Saturday's 2-0 win)."
Ferris State is also limiting opponent's chances, relying on four senior defensemen. This also has helped free up the offense, which has 21 goals.
"We're pretty reliable defensively. We mind our Ps and Qs," Daniels said. "We don't trap, we're playing aggressive, chasing pucks hard, trying to make plays in the neutral zone. But we have a pretty good, experienced defensive corps.
"Part of reason we're scoring at a higher clip is we have real good mobile defensemen. We don't have to dump every puck in, or throw it off the window and out. We're able to make plays coming out of our end."
D-men like Zach Redmond got individual accolades in the past, but the group that's now the four seniors, kept growing together. That's invaluable. And now they are the leaders too, with Redmond having graduated.
"It's terrific," Daniels said. "It gives us an opportunity to take the kids and not press them. And allow them to get better and grow into these roles. So it's great. But we also have very little turnover in terms of kids quitting. We don't push kids out of our program ever. It's a really big deal for us. If they're not performing as we hoped, we'll find a way to get him to perform.
"Some of it's by necessity. But we're just in a day and age, you've got teams recruiting up to 30 kids and pulling scholarships. That's not going to happen here. Sometimes when you make snap decisions, you don't allow a kid to grow."
Ferris State is among those CCHA teams that will move to a new-look WCHA in two years. On the one hand, it could open up more opportunities to get NCAA bids. On the other hand, the worry is that no longer being in a conference with prestigious schools like Notre Dame and Michigan will hurt Ferris' prestige in the eyes of recruits.
So far, however, Daniels sees no reason to believe that will happen.
"Our recruits, we haven't seen any impact negatively whatsoever," Daniels said. "They're happy and that's how we knew we made the right decision (to join the WCHA). We had five commits for down the road and when that happened, they wanted to know what was going on, but when we got on the phone and told them, they welcomed (the idea of the WCHA). So we didn't lose anyone, and we've had visits seems and it does not seem to negatively influence them.
"(Other schools) can only take so many (recruits), and I don't see it changing too much from now."
Ferris State was caught in this tidal change in college hockey, with power teams shifting out of the CCHA into new leagues, and Notre Dame off to Hockey East. The rest of the schools — strong hockey programs, by and large, in their own right — with long traditions, may not be from powerful schools on an NCAA-wide level, but still had a lot to offer each other. So, out of necessity, mainly, they got together.
"We wanted to be in a conference with teams that really valued hockey," Daniels said. "Where to the university, having a Division I program was really precious and important. Division I hockey at Ferris, Bemidji, Northern Michigan, Lake State, (Michigan) Tech — you're not looking at places where people are indifferent about hockey. There's a lot of name brand recognition. Is it better than what we have now, no, but it's good and the best of the situation that was at hand."
A big key down the road will be continuing to play teams like Michigan. Daniels is hoping for a tournament that includes Ferris, Western Michigan, Notre Dame and Michigan State, at a place like Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids. He's been working the connections with these other coaches, who are hockey people, and he hopes everyone continues to look out for one another.
"You hope the relationships and friendships we've developed over time, carry on," Daniels said, "because now more than ever, schools like ours will need those relationships to remain strong."