Hockey Program Only Exists Because Of Efforts 20 Years Ago
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
TAMPA, Fla. Ferris State has became the darling story of the postseason. The unsung school from Michigan that had made just one NCAA Tournament appearance before this season, has gone on a run that's included a CCHA regular-season championship and a berth in Saturday night's national championship game.
But if not for some turns of fate, and the hard work of many, Ferris State's hockey program would not even exist.
Twenty years ago, the school made plans to drop hockey as a sport in order to save money. Actually, a blue ribbon panel made three recommendations, two of which involved cutting the hockey program. The school president, who was there six months at the time, made the final call that hockey should be dropped.
The outpouring was quick, and it overwhelmed the administration.
"Being in my third year, you don't know the community that well, and I was taken back by the passion of the people in town and the students and how hard they fought to reverse that decision," said Ferris State coach Bob Daniels, who was then in his third year as an assistant coach, the final two under Bob Mancini. "It would never have been saved without that.
"Some donors stepped up and said, 'We want hockey,' and they put their money where their mouth was and came through with some donations. And then some people at the university asked what (we needed). It didn't happen overnight, but we had a new office, new locker room, a player lounge renovation."
The school also raised some school fees while giving students half-price hockey ticket discounts.
But Daniels said it wasn't just a financial decision. The president at the time also espoused a philosophy that athletics and higher education couldn't mix.
"It was basically one person that made this decision in a vacuum," Daniels said. "She didn't have the lay of the land."
Since then, enrollment at Ferris State has gone from 7,000 to more than 12,000.
"Athletics has become more of a reflection of where our school has gone. We're no longer a small school. The basketball team has done great, all our sports are good across the board, and our academics are strong.
"Without the university growing, I don't think we'd have the success we've had. We're the fastest-growing school in the state of Michigan. We're exploding. So those two things coming together helped us, and hopefully we helped them too."
Although the program was reinstated, all of the recruits already decided to go elsewhere. Since it was Daniels' job to recruit players, he was in the middle of the fire. That fire got even warmer, however, when Mancini left that year in August 1992, taking the head coaching job at Michigan Tech.
Altogether, three recruiting classes were affected, and it took five years, Daniels said, for the program to truly recover.
That's when Daniels and his team got to work.
"I did think it took a little bit of time to kind of get over the perception that the program had been dropped," Daniels said. "It had an impact on recruiting. We had to kind of repackage and resell, but we didn't have to repackage and resell it to our fans. We were very fortunate during those years that we never lost our fanbase. We lost quite a few hockey games, but we never did lose the fanbase. I think slowly we turned the program around and built off of that.
"Once they made the decision, it was, 'OK, what do we do to make it good?' And so, in a weird way, it almost helped us. Before that, it was just there. But after that we thought, 'If you're gonna do it, do it right.' And it took a while, but we did it."
And Daniels said the administration came to understand the plight of the coaches, and gave them the time to get things back in order.
"We said, 'OK, we're not going to get the top-end kids,' so we said, 'We're going to get great character, 100 percent.' And that's what got us through. They were great kids, great in the classroom, and that's what helped us survive losing those first few years.
"The rink is what the rink is, it's 2,500 seats, it's small. But on game night, it's great. And it's clean, and nice. The hard part is when we bring in recruits and the building's not full, but it takes on a life of its own on game night. ... (The renovations) said to recruits, hockey is important here, it's not an afterthought."
Jerry York, coach of Boston College, Ferris State's opponent in Saturday's championship game, was the head coach at CCHA rival Bowling Green at the time. York went through his own crossroads in 1994 when taking over at BC, a program that had been rocked by recruiting issues too.
"They could've been just a figment of our imagination, a hockey team at Ferris State," York said. "They survived that and became much, much stronger. There's only 58 of us, or 59, so we always have to protect each other. It was great to see Ferris come back."
There was concern, at one point last summer, about Ferris State's future once again. With big-name schools announcing plans to leave the CCHA for the Big Ten or NCHC, Ferris and others were left without a home. After a period of uncertainty, the school decided to head for the new-look WCHA in 2013-14, a league that won't be as powerful overall, but will afford Ferris State a new opportunity to take advantage of.