Any time your roster, as a college hockey coach, includes 20 underclassmen, you expect to go through growing pains as a group.
The simple youth and inexperience are a tough combination to deal with in any conference, let alone one with multiple teams competing for spots in the NCAA tournament at the end of the season.
Then toss in a worldwide pandemic that forces schools to test players nearly daily, quarantine those who test positive, even if that test is false. Your total practice time dwindles from anywhere around 6-8 hours a week to one and a half, if you hit the ice at all.
It is tough to remain competitive through all of that.
Yet, Bob Daniels’ Ferris State team is trying to do just that. The Bulldogs are 1-8-0 on the season after earning a win on Saturday over Trine.
Right now, his team’s record is the least of what Daniels is trying to focus on.
“It’s so funny. I mean, it’s, in some respects, been a tremendous success,” he said. “It really has. In other respects, in terms of wins and losses right now, we’re disappointed.
“The winning part of this is we’ve played, this will be our sixth week of scheduled hockey that we’ve been able to complete in a row. That’s pretty amazing, so that’s a win.”
He’s not wrong.
Of the Bulldogs’ eight losses, four have come at the hands of Bowling Green. Six of the losses have been by two goals or less, even with the lack of instruction time that he and his staff have been able to work with.
“A lot of that goes credit goes to our trainers that are unbelievably working so hard,” said Daniels. “Our administration and our players deserve a lot of credit for really, it took a little while at the beginning of the year for them to understand the complexity of this issue, but they have embraced it, and they’ve really, really done a great job of self-bubbling, if you will. It’s an amazing thing, and we’re not the only team going through it.
“It’s been a challenge.”
To say that Daniels has never seen a year like this would be an understatement. The veteran coach, who is in his 29th season at the helm of the Bulldogs, cannot recall any season this challenging, both on and off the ice.
Despite all of this, Daniels is actually encouraged by what he has seen thus far from his Bulldogs.
“Our team’s a much better team than what the record indicates,” he said. “We’re building towards the end of the year, where maybe it can all come together for us. I do feel between now and the end of the year, though, that will start getting shown up in the win column.”
A big reason for Daniels’ optimism has been the play of some of his upperclassmen, particularly senior winger Coale Norris and junior forwards Ethan Stewart, who missed a large chunk of 2019-20 due to injury, and Justin Michaelian.
Norris, who had just eight points last season, has already matched that total this season in nine games. A defensive-minded forward, Daniels is proud of the effort the fourth-year forward is putting in on both ends of the rink.
“He’s having his best year in terms of just his overall play, not not just points, but I’m talking about both ends of the rink,” Daniels said. “He’s really stepped up his game and his leadership role.”
Michaelian leads the team with nine points, four of which are goals. Stewart is tied for the team lead with five goals. Again, both have traditionally been more defensive-minded forwards, so to have them chipping in is a bonus for Daniels’ team.
“(Stewart is) another player who I am surprised by his point total. That kind of caught me off guard because he is a tremendous defensive player for us, too.” said Daniels of Stewart. “That’s been a real blessing.
“The other one is Justin Michaelian. He has shown glimpses over the past few seasons, but he’s really starting to put it together. I think he still has room for growth.”
Two more players that Daniels has been pleased with are seniors Lucas Finner and Marshall Moise. Both players have suffered through injury issues in the past, but have been effective in their roles when healthy enough to play.
Where the Bulldogs’ youth really shows is on their blue line. Of the eight defensemen who have seen action, none is an upperclassman.
Sophomore Jake Willets, who led the team in scoring as a freshman with 21 points in 34 games, had just two points in his first eight games this season. Daniels feels that Willets was not as prepared to start the season as he could have been. However, he is happy to see that Willets is working on improving his practice habits, and it is already starting to pay off.
“He’s kind of in that sophomore slump, if you will, where sometimes I think, when you have a really successful freshman season, you come back and you feel as though you’re just going to pick up where you left off,” said Daniels. “He might have fallen prey to that, but that’s human nature.
“In what I’m seeing out of him, as of late, is he kind of went through that phase where you become frustrated, you wonder why things aren’t working out for you. Then you finally say, ‘Okay, enough of that. I know I need to start grinding in practice too, and I need to start applying myself harder on a daily basis.’ That’s what happened and he’s done that.”
While there has been little in terms of results for Daniels to hang his hat on, one of his youngest players has enjoyed some personal success. Freshman goaltender Logan Stein served as the third netminder for Team USA during the recent World Junior Championship in Edmonton. While he did not see any action, he worked in practice regularly with the squad that earned gold at the tournament.
Daniels worked Stein into the lineup almost immediately upon his return from Edmonton. In fact, within hours of arriving in Grand Rapids, Mich., Stein found himself on the bus with his Bulldogs teammates heading for Huntsville. He played both nights for Ferris, surrendering six goals.
Daniels admits that might have been too much too soon, but also was encouraged by the youngster’s efforts.
“That might have been a questionable decision on my part, but I am glad I did it,” Daniels said. “Obviously, he was very tired. Then he hadn’t really played a game since maybe late February, early March, when the USHL got shut down. I turned around and started up two nights in a row.”
Stein will likely share the net with junior Roni Salmenkangas for the remainder of the season. Daniels feels that both of them play a similar enough style that the team can continue to grow in front of either netminder every night.
This weekend, the Bulldogs, who have had only one practice this week due to coronavirus precautions, travel to Mankato to face Minnesota State. Mavericks coach Mike Hastings, in discussions with Daniels, agreed to push the weekend series from Friday-Saturday to Saturday-Sunday to help accommodate the Bulldogs. For Daniels, it was another in a string of great interactions he has had with his fellow coaches as they all try to make the best of a difficult situation league-wide.
“Hockey’s always been great, the community, in terms of working together, but I’ve never seen it come together like it has this year,” said Daniels. “I’ve gotten to know the coaches better than I ever have before. We’ve had weekly Zoom (meetings) since April, in terms of trying to iron out details of play. Truthfully, I’ve never seen it so collegial. It’s always been great, but it’s gone up a notch.
“My appreciation for all the other coaches, certainly within our conference, has gone up immensely.”
Last weekend, several Minnesota State players had strong nights en route to a sweep of Lake Superior State on the road.
In a 3-0 win on Friday, Julian Napravnick led the way with a goal and two assists. Cade Borchardt added three assists. Saturday in a 6-2 win, Sam Morton scored twice and added an assist. Riese Zmolek also had a successful night, picking up three assists.
The Mavericks have this weekend off before hosting Alabama Huntsville next weekend.