It was a Thursday morning in early October. In the Tim Horton’s across from the arena at Bowling Green, new Falcons coach Chris Bergeron talked about his team, or what he knew of it to that point. The Michigan Wolverines were coming in for the weekend for his first test as a CCHA head coach.
He wasn’t really concerned with Michigan coming to town looking for career win No. 700 for Red Berenson behind the Wolverines bench. Bergeron smiled amid the situation — would he get career win No. 1 before the legendary Berenson getting his 700th? It was an interesting historical crossroads not lost on Bergeron. Berenson took over a program that had been very successful and hit the skids until he got there. Bergeron took over a program that had won a national title in 1984 and has had success but recently fell on hard times. Could he build from scratch what Berenson did at Michigan?
It was obvious there needed to be a different belief in the dressing room at BG.
At Yale, the upperclassmen said in the year before Keith Allain took over there was a feeling to just play the game but there was not much expectation or pressure to win it. At BG, that feeling had started to creep in. It had at places like Merrimack prior to the arrival of Mark Dennehy, who has turned the Warriors around. Yale is now a legit national title threat and that started under Allain. Nebraska-Omaha has flourished under Dean Blais’ new aggressive attitude.
The new belief needed at BG this summer wasn’t a belief they could win the national title like it was in his previous role as the associate head coach at Miami, a back-to-back Frozen Four team. It wasn’t a belief they could win the CCHA like three or four teams believe they can this season. It might not even be a belief they can finish .500 or better.
The belief needed was in “the lifestyle” of being an elite college hockey player. As Bergeron terms it, “being a great player is a lifestyle.” It is not a lifestyle of living large, of excessive adulation from fans and boosters, of being the big man on campus socially. This lifestyle is much harder, probably less exciting short term and certainly done while very few are watching or fawning over you. It is not about playing the role of a star player; it is about developing the habits needed to become one.
Bergeron comes from a program where being great was part of the package. That was part of “the lifestyle.” The lifestyle is the commitment physically, mentally, and emotionally to becoming and staying a great player every shift of every game. It is the commitment to proper training and diet. It is the commitment to being a good student and to being a good human being. It is believing that you can take what you have and make it much better by living with a focus that every day you are expected to improve, to step outside your comfort zone, to be someone who is counted on as opposed to being the one that counts on someone else.
“Our young guys have expectations. They have to have expectations of themselves and they are buying into that,” Bergeron said after his team dispatched Alabama-Huntsville in Friday’s semifinal game of the RPI Holiday Tournament. “You have to live that way every day if you are going to be great, and some of them can be.”
The Falcons’ captain is David Solway, a senior left wing from Green Bay, Wis., who played his 125th game of his BG career Saturday when the Falcons faced RPI. Solway is the guy these young guys are looking to when, as Bergeron terms it, “things go sideways.” The coach wants a different level of accountability to start developing, a process in learning and living “the lifestyle.” Solway plays a role here as a leader.
“These kids, the young guys, they need to start to be able to look inward when it isn’t going well in games,” Bergeron said. “What we are doing is asking the younger guys, the freshmen and sophomores, to grow up pretty quickly. We are asking them to speed up the process so we can get to where we want to be.”
Bergeron just put his name on Bowling Green’s 800th win as a program on Friday night. Ron Mason is the all-time wins leader in college hockey, and he earned milestone wins 100 and 200 in BG history. Another legend, the all-time active wins leader in Jerry York (850-plus) was around for wins 300, 400, and 500. Buddy Powers accomplished wins 600 and 700. Bergeron has joined an exclusive club in college hockey history by having his name on the wall with these successful coaches. His goal is to be there for 900 and beyond with one of those being a win the Frozen Four Championship game.
Bergeron is also holding himself accountable for “the lifestyle” as a coach. As Joe Namath once said, no one wants to follow a leader who does not know where he is going. Bergeron knows where he wants to get to and where he wants to take these players and the Bowling Green program, but that will involve some buying into his own program by himself.
“What I have learned about myself as a coach is that I have a lot to learn as a coach,” Bergeron said. “I need to be even keeled; I can’t let my emotions run up and down as much as they do. I have to be able to lead.”
Any first-year coach will try to accomplish more than a year’s worth of work in year one. Bergeron is fighting that impulse while still driving home the culture change and level of accountability needed to make this work. That started with small things like patching a small hole in a wall that might have been there for a few years or changing a carpet that looked less than acceptable. Things that were in the dressing room that looked dull look bright now. Stains are gone from floors. Faucets don’t squeak.
“It is easy to talk performance to players but I have to perform also,” Bergeron said. “It is a process for me and I have to live it if I expect them to. They have to follow me on that. I have to set that example.”
Give Bergeron time to grow as a coach and time to grow this program and players will follow him. So will recruits who will see BG as a place to develop into great college hockey players, great students and potentially future NHL players. They just might follow him all the way back to the Frozen Four.
At Miami he helped create “The Brotherhood.” At Bowling Green he is establishing “The Lifestyle.”
It is worth living.
Notes from the tourney
• Great game between Connecticut and Rensselaer. Alex Angers-Goulet and Chase Polacek had a pair of goals each, both scoring huge goals in a third period comeback as RPI beat UConn 6-5.
The game was 4-2 UConn when a scary moment occurred as a goalmouth scrum left RPI’s CJ Lee motionless in the Huskies crease face down. The scene was scarily reminiscent of Travis Roy laying motionless face down at Walter Brown Arena 15 years ago. In a nearly silent arena paramedics stabilized Lee and took him off via stretcher.
Lee was driving to the net and his teammate, Patrick Cullen, was checked. As Cullen was checked, he was flipped and his leg whipped up in the air and caught Lee in the side of the head.
All tests were negative afterward at Albany Medical Center.
RPI responded with three goals in 3:12 shortly after for a 5-4 lead, and after the tying goal by Connecticut, Polacek did what a team leader does, scoring the game winner with under four minutes left.
• Michael Coppola is in his first year as a volunteer assistant coach at Connecticut. A four-year player under coach Bruce Marshall, Coppola is a coach in waiting if he chooses to go that route. He has been a team captain everywhere he has been and has tremendous leadership qualities as well as a solid work ethic. NCAA teams looking for a young assistant coach next season should add Coppola to their short list of candidates.
• Lost in the six goals allowed was a tremendous performance by Connecticut goalie Garrett Bartus. He made 35 saves, many from point-blank range. Goaltending shouldn’t be an issue for the Huskies.
• Jordan Samuels-Thomas and Camden Wojtala each had multi-point games for Bowling Green.