For Ferris State, comparisons to Frozen Four team will have to wait

How does a coach whose team was the winner of its regular season conference championship and a national runner-up in 2011-12 react to preseason polls that have his team finishing in either fourth or fifth place in the his own league? With typical Bob Daniels perspective, of course.

“I still don’t know how we’ll be this season and I see them every day,” said Daniels, now in his 21st season as head coach at Ferris State.

“It’s so hard to predict where everyone will be,” Daniels said. “We’re the epitome of that. We lost eight guys. For us, it feels like we’re starting a brand new process over again — which we are, with a new team.

“I prefer not to have our team right now judged by last year’s team. When the year’s over, we can go back and compare the two.”

The Bulldogs went to last year’s Frozen Four with an improbable team that included key seniors like forward Jordie Johnston and his 20 goals, a defensive corps that included Chad Billins, Aaron Schmit and Brent Wysopal, and goaltender Taylor Nelson, whose .924 save percentage was a big reason why FSU traveled to Tampa last April.

When the season began, said Daniels, “We weren’t going to pick up where we left off.”

Instead, Daniels said, the team had hoped to begin where they began last season. After two weekends of CCHA play, Ferris State is one of the five CCHA teams with a 2-2-0 record and a slice of second place. That’s about as good as anyone is in the league right now, except for first-place Notre Dame, the only team to have pulled off a two-game sweep so far in this young season.

In their most recent series, the Bulldogs split at home with Miami, a 3-0 win Nov. 2 and a 4-2 loss the following night. Both teams had split the weekend before, with the RedHawks beating Michigan in Yost Ice Arena the previous Saturday.

“We caught them coming off of Michigan, an emotional win,” Daniels said. “They’re a young team. We’re a young team and we won on Friday night. Both teams took a turn at proving that they’re young. That’s part of the process of getting better.

“Last two weekends, we played four freshmen [defensemen] and I know Miami did, too. There were eight freshmen defensemen. When you play that many freshmen defensemen, you’re going to have mistakes and inconsistencies.”

The Bulldogs are down two defensemen to injury, junior Scott Czarnowczan and sophomore Travis White. “That’s really hurt us in terms of our defense,” Daniels said.

On the upside, though, Daniels said: “Forced to play the four freshmen defensemen that we have, that’s going to help us down the road. They’re not used to this intensity yet, but they will be.”

Behind that young defense, sophomore goaltender C.J. Motte has been playing very well, Daniels said. Motte earned his third career shutout, the first of the season, in the 3-0 win and he made 36 saves the following night in the 4-2 loss.

“He has been very good,” Daniels said. “The team he’s performing behind, the team he’s backstopping is not certainly the team we were a year ago defensively. He’s erasing a lot of early mistakes.”

Last year, Daniels said, he wouldn’t have felt comfortable putting in Motte for back-to-back games. “This year,” he said, “I wouldn’t have an issue with playing him three nights in a row.”

Even though Daniels anticipates some growing pains for this year’s Bulldogs, he sees how the team will benefit from its Frozen Four run of a season ago.

“I think the guys that were here a year ago that are here right now know that if we follow the right process and do the little things correctly, good things are going to come our way,” Daniels said. “That group last year, it wasn’t like it was immediate satisfaction. I think the older guys can attest that the process is the important thing, maybe not worry about how it’s going to end up down the road.

“If we do the little things and don’t get too caught up in the momentary results … as long as we focus on the process, we’ll be just fine.”

This weekend, the Bulldogs travel to Sault Ste. Marie to play Lake Superior State.

One coach’s walk down memory lane

One of the best things about getting to cover Michigan State games is getting to listen to second-year coach Tom Anastos after the games are over. Anastos is a talker — something every reporter values and something I like, personally — and he’s also a good storyteller.

After MSU’s 1-0 loss to Bowling Green last Friday, someone asked about the shoulder injury to freshman defenseman Rhett Holland. Said Anastos, “I’m going to say that Holland will probably be out for the year.”

After confirming that Holland will apply for redshirt status and have surgery, Anastos explained why he thinks this is the best decision for Holland — and his explanation came from personal experience.

“It was a question in his case of whether or not he’d try to grunt and grind it out for a year. I played with that,” Anastos said. “It was the most miserable hockey year of my life.

“He’s a physical player and that’s a hard way to play. I told him, ‘Let’s look long term. Let’s look big picture.’ I’d love to have him out there — he’s a real physical presence — but I think the best thing to do for his health and for his confidence and for his long-term well-being is to go take care of it and use time on our side to get it fixed.”

Anastos played his senior year (1984-85) for Michigan State with a painful shoulder injury. “I remember being faced with the same thing,” he said. “I’ll never forget it. I don’t have many regrets in my hockey career and that was one of them.

“I’ll never forget sitting down … and talking with my coach about [redshirting] and he recommended we consider it, but at the time our program was just skyrocketing. We were ranked No. 1 in the country and we were all caught up in the energy behind the program and I wanted to keep playing, but my shoulder would pop out once a game, a couple times a week.

“It was miserable. I wore a shoulder wrap that tied my arm down here” — Anastos made a gesture at waist height — “and I couldn’t really do anything.

“The decision was his [Holland’s], but I wanted him to understand, from my own experience, that it’s hard to look down the road. Had I redshirted, I would have played there in 1986. Maybe I would’ve messed up a national championship.”

Anastos had shoulder surgery following his senior season, and he told the media that his shoulder still gives him trouble if he sleeps on it wrong.

The Spartans won their second NCAA Division I title in 1986, the year after Anastos graduated.

Snapshot memories

Some of the memories that remain with us forever are small memories, snapshots of moments that held significance even while holding at least a little bit of heartbreak. Having covered the CCHA for 17 seasons, I have a lot of these memories banked away.

In the press box every weekend, often sitting with local press who have more invested in the home team than I do, I joke that I don’t care who wins, that I only care about my picks. Everyone knows I’m lousy at the picks; I’m just grateful when I look even semi-smart.

But I notice the little things that will probably stay with players and coaches forever, sometimes things that I cannot write about immediately, like when a coach loses his temper and I hear things not intended for anyone but the team emanating from a locker room. Or when a player cries after a particularly difficult loss.

Or when he doesn’t. I have many, many good memories associated with Ferris State hockey, from helping transport Tim Blashill, Jeff’s younger brother, to Big Rapids for Jeff’s senior night — a long story that I’ve retold in parts in my column, and an experience that cemented my enormous respect for the entire Blashill family — to last year’s Frozen Four.

I thought that rebounding after losing their home playoff series to the last-place Bowling Green Falcons was an extraordinary thing to do for the Bulldogs. No team wants to sit out its conference championship, especially not Ferris State, where the CCHA title is one of the program’s most important annual goals.

In Tampa last April, everyone was charmed by the Bulldogs — and why not? They were unpretentious, long shots, from a school where every other sport is Division II. Senior Chad Billins, the affable captain from Marysville, Mich. — located between Port Huron and Detroit, population 9,959 — refused to discard the cheap black sunglasses that he picked up at Kmart, making then-sports information director and current USCHO MCHA Columnist Katie Carito a little nutty.

Billins and his teammates also refused to get down on themselves after FSU’s 4-1 loss to Boston College in the title match. “We’re happy with our season,” Billins said immediately after the game. “We’re not going to hang our heads or anything like that.”

The tilt of his head was almost defiant. There were no tears for the press — not even a hint of red eyes.

“I’m happy with how everyone played and I’m proud of all the guys,” senior Jordie Johnston said.

It was a completely appropriate response and refreshing honesty after a hard-fought game, and one of my favorite Bulldogs hockey moments.

That snapshot contrasts sharply with one of my dearest memories associated with Michigan State hockey. This memory isn’t dear because of the outcome of the game it followed. This memory is dear because of its humanity.

It was 1998 and Ohio State had just beaten Michigan State in overtime in the NCAA West Regional in Yost Ice Arena to advance to the Frozen Four in Boston. It was a crazy day. I was elated for the Buckeyes and devastated for the Spartans. These were two teams I liked very much — and by that, I mean the players on each team, as a whole — and I thought it criminal that they should have to meet in the regional, as they were each playing the best hockey in the country at that moment.

After the standard postgame press conferences, the press was told that locker rooms were open and a few of us went off to find Chad Alban, the MSU goaltender whose collegiate career had just ended. Alban was one of those nice, quiet, low-maintenance goaltenders that everyone loved to cover. That he was as good as he was that season — with his 1.57 goals against average and .926 save percentage — made him a minor celebrity that year.

We found Alban all alone in a tiny locker room off the lobby of the pre-renovated Yost Ice Arena. He was taking off his MSU gear for the last time, and we hesitated in the tiny doorway. “Come on in,” he said. His voice was small. His eyes were bloodshot. We all knew he’d been sobbing.

I think we were humbled. We were certainly subdued and we didn’t stay long. He answered every question professionally, even the question about how Andre Signoretti’s game-winning goal went in from the right circle. Even the inevitable question — not from me — about what it felt like at that moment.

His voice never broke. He took his time. He never rushed us.

Before I returned to the press box, I had to stop in the women’s bathroom to dry the few tears that I couldn’t will away. In the whole of the universe, Michigan State winning or losing didn’t matter one bit on that warm spring day in 1998, but one young man’s very human, very tangible disappointment — and his ability to keep himself together, half-naked and alone in a tiny locker room while reporters asked what must have seemed to him like meaningless questions — felt like the weight of the world to me for the remainder of the day.

Somehow, 14 years later, this still touches me. I don’t know what it proves, but I cherish it.

Players of the week … and the month

Why do I think that this won’t be Anders Lee’s only POTW honors?

Rookie of the week: Northern Michigan forward Cohen Adair, for the second time this season. Adair had two goals and an assist as the Wildcats tied and then defeated the visiting Wolverines.

Offensive player of the week: Notre Dame junior Anders Lee, who had three goals on 12 shots in a weekend split with Western Michigan.

Defenseman of the week: Michigan junior Mac Bennett, who had a goal and an assist in each of the Wolverines’ games versus NMU. Bennett blocked a shot and finished plus two for the series.

Goaltender of the week: Lake Superior State junior Kevin Murdock, who stopped 85 shots in a two-game road split against Alaska, including 48 in LSSU’s Saturday win.

Players of the month

Congratulations to Miami sophomore forward Austin Czarnik, the CCHA player of the month for October. Czarnik had three goals and five assists as Miami went 4-1-1 in the month.

And congratulations to Notre Dame junior goaltender Steven Summerhays, the league’s goaltender of the month for October. Summerhays went 4-1-0 for the month with a 1.61 goals against average and .938 save percentage. He had a shutout against Maine to open his season at the Icebreaker Tournament, which the Fighting Irish won.

My ballot

With so many splits this week in college hockey, my ballot didn’t change at all.

1. Boston College
2. Minnesota
3. Denver
4. North Dakota
5. Notre Dame
6. New Hampshire
7. Michigan
8. Miami
9. Union
10. Cornell
11. Western Michigan
12. Massachusetts-Lowell
13. Boston University
14. Minnesota-Duluth
15. Ferris State
16. Northeastern
17. St. Cloud State
18. Northern Michigan
19. Colorado College
20. Lake Superior State

CCHA memories

Please send in anything you’d like to share with CCHA fans. I’ll use what you email ([email protected]) unless you tell me not to.