Bowling Green has steadily improved during the last four seasons.
Now, the Falcons believe they’re finally ready to contend for a league championship and a berth in the NCAA playoffs.
They’re optimistic following last season when they were 18-15-6 overall and tied for third in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association with a 13-11-4 record.
The Falcons won a first-round playoff series against Michigan Tech before losing to WCHA playoff champion Minnesota State in the semifinals.
This season, BG returns 17 lettermen, consisting of nine forwards, six defensemen and two goalies.
The Falcons have won nine regular-season league championships, but none since 1989. And they haven’t won a league playoff championship since 1988, the last of their five league playoff titles.
BG moved from the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association to the WCHA after the 2012-13 season.
“Each year, we have high expectations and this is the best team I’ve been on since I’ve been here,” said junior forward Brent Tate, who said BG’s major goals this season are to win the WCHA regular-season and playoff championships.
The Falcons hit the ice for the first time Oct. 4 when they host Simon Fraser in an exhibition at noon.
BG opens the season against Miami in a home-and-home series. The teams play Oct. 10 at BG and Oct. 12 at Miami.
“We’ve gotten better and better each year; that’s a good sign,” Tate said.
The Falcons also are hoping for a 20-win season, which would be their first since 1996 when they won 24 games.
BG’s winning record overall last season was its first since 1997.
“The 20 wins, the league championship, the league playoff championship, the national tournament … those are the types of conversations we’re having,” said BG coach Chris Bergeron, who is in his fifth season.
The WCHA playoff champion receives an automatic berth to the NCAA playoffs. An at-large berth to the NCAAs isn’t out of the question, either, as fellow WCHA member Ferris State earned an at-large berth to the NCAAs last season.
The Falcons haven’t played in the NCAA playoffs since 1990.
“We think those conversations are realistic now,” Bergeron said. “We’re just not saying them for the sake of saying them. We think they’re real.”
LEARNING: The Falcons believed they would be championship contenders last season, but never were a factor in the title race.
BG finished 12 points behind champion Ferris State and 11 points behind runnerup Minnesota State. The Falcons were in danger of missing the WCHA playoffs late in the season.
“Learning how to win isn’t something that comes overnight,” Tate said.
Six of BG’s losses and two of its ties last season came in games it led after two periods. The Falcons were only 1-3-3 when tied after two periods.
“We had to go through that last year,” Tate said. “This year, we’ll be deeper and finish those games off … that’s the difference between 16 and 20 wins, or 18 and 22, 24 wins.”
CHANGE: The Falcons increased their win total during each of Bergeron’s first four seasons.
BG won just five games in its last season before Bergeron, and has won 10, 14, 15 and 18 games in his first four seasons. The Falcons’ winning record in league play last season was their first since 2005.
Bergeron took over after the program was targeted for elimination by university and athletic department officials for budgetary reasons. The future of the program no longer is an issue.
“We like where we’re at, for the most part,” Bergeron said. “The biggest change has come in attitude and expectations. Yes, we look different physically.
“But the physical changes were going to come when the program solidified itself, four years ago, five years ago because then you can get those players you need to compete at the level we want to compete at.”
Now, the Falcons are finally expecting to compete for a league title every season.
“Going from good to very good or very good to great, that’s the hardest part. I don’t know where we are on that scale,” Bergeron said.
“We’re better than we were, but we need to take a step forward and our attitude and our expectations are going to help us do that. We’re happy with where we are after four years, heading into our fifth year, in terms of our mind-set and our attitude.”
MIND-SET: With more than a week remaining until the exhibition, Bergeron is happy with the team’s attitude.
“The attitude seems good,” Bergeron said. “Over the next 10 days, we’ll be holding individual (player) meetings to get to the guts of what they think of themselves and what they feel their role is going to be. We’ll get a chance to get a good feeling for what their mind-set is going to be individually and collectively.
“The feeling from the coaches is the attitude is very good. We’re another year into this process, and coming off last season, guys are hungry and that’s where we want to be. That’s the mind-set we want to have. We want to prove that we’re taking steps forward.”
ON THE ICE: Although Oct. 4 is the first official day for practice under NCAA rules, Sept. 15 was the first day coaches could be on the ice with their teams.
Until the official start of practice, teams can be on the ice with their coaches for two hours per week for skill instruction.
Prior to Sept. 15, coaches were allowed to do on-ice drills with the players, but no more than four players were allowed on the ice at a time.
Once the players returned to school last month, they could skate on their own in captains practices and go through off-ice conditioning/weightlifting workouts as a team.
CONDITIONING: Bergeron is pleased with the results of BG’s conditioning.
“Our level of conditioning is good. Now, that’s off-ice conditioning and we want to bring that to our on-ice conditioning,” Bergeron said. “That’s what September is for, to make sure we’re in condition on the ice.”
The Falcons have steadily improved their strength and conditioning during the last four seasons.
“It’s much better than it has been,” Bergeron said. “We have a couple of conditioning tests we do and the results not only from our perspective, but from the professional people that we have involved on campus, our starting point in terms of our base condition, is better.”
And the team is hoping the conditioning pays off on the ice.
“The top teams in any league want to be condition and we’re in great shape, and our starting point is better than it has been,” Bergeron said. “Based on our conditioning tests and the weight room, our older guys are leading the way, and that’s what we expect and that’s what it needs to be.”
NEWCOMERS: The Falcons added freshmen defensemen Austin Carroll and Braden Pears to their roster over the summer.
They were added to make up for the loss of veterans Ralfs Freibergs and Marcus Perrier.
Carroll played for the Fort Erie Meteors in the Ontario (Junior) Hockey Association.
Carroll, who is 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, is from Toledo. He’ll turn 21 in December.
Pears played for the Trail Smoke Eaters and the West Kelowna Warriors in the British Columbia (Junior) Hockey League last season.
He had six goals, 27 assists and 25 penalty minutes in 60 games for last season.
Pears (6-1, 180) turned 21 in May. He is from Victoria, British Columbia.
Freibergs, who would have been a junior, signed with the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets.
Perrier also left to pursue a pro career, signing with the East Coast Hockey League’s South Carolina Stingrays.
CAPTAINS: Bergeron said the Falcons will have their captains selected by the time the team plays its exhibition contest.
The coaching staff will be discussing possible captains with the players during the individual meetings.
“Obviously, we have some guys who need to be involved in leadership roles, but we’ll see what the team thinks in terms of who the specific captains are,” Bergeron said.
ROSTER BREAKDOWN: The Falcons have 28 players on their roster — three goalies, 10 defensemen and 15 forwards.
By class, BG has six seniors, six juniors, five sophomores and 11 freshmen.