Bowling Green has been one of the better teams in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association during the last three seasons.
Now, the Falcons are striving to become a great team, a championship team.
The move from good to great begins with believing the program can be great, and continues with the team’s off-season conditioning program, Falcon coach Chris Bergeron said Tuesday.
The Falcons fell short of league regular-season and playoff championships this season, finishing 22-14-6 overall and third in the league with a 16-7-5 record. BG finished two points behind co-champions Michigan Tech and Minnesota State for first place in the WCHA.
The Falcons posted back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time since 1995 and 1996, and have finished third in the league three straight seasons. BG has advanced to the WCHA Final Five in each of its first three seasons in the league, but lost in the semifinals each time.
The Falcons believed they were ready to win championships this season after finishing 23-11-5, 17-8-3 last season. They missed the NCAA playoffs by .0002, as they were edged by eventual national champion Providence for the final at-large berth.
“I want it to be where the expectations are so real within the players on our team that they won’t not allow us to get to the expectations,” said Bergeron, who will be in his seventh season in the fall. “They won’t allow each other not to be willing to prepare. Our guys know that starts with our summer conditioning, and it goes through every day at practice, every game.
“How willing are you to prepare as an individual? How willing are we, as a collective group, to be great every day? This goes back to September. We had some guys really struggle with our conditioning tests. The test isn’t new. It’s something we’ve been doing the last few years. It goes through practice every day, games. How willing are you to prepare? I’ll continue to pose that question.”
The Falcons’ season ended Friday with a 2-1 loss to Minnesota State in the semifinals of the WCHA Final Five in Grand Rapids, Michigan. BG didn’t play well early and fell behind 2-0 in the first seven minutes en route to the loss.
“We’re trying to create a culture within our team that if you aren’t willing, you’ll get exposed for it,” Bergeron said. “The only way that’s going to happen is if we’ve got a bunch of guys who are willing, and they can expose the guys who aren’t.
“We’re going to try to improve our internal competition which is going to bring out the best in everybody. But this is because our expectations are so real that you came here to win championships that we’re not going to allow anything less than that. That has to come from the players.”
The Falcons squandered two opportunities to win a regular-season championship.
BG had what Bergeron called a “great” first half, posting records of 11-3-5 overall and 8-2-4 in the league going into the Christmas break. But the Falcons were only 11-11-1, 8-5-1 the rest of the way — including losses at Alabama-Huntsville, Lake Superior and Alaska (Fairbanks), three of the bottom four teams in the league.
The Falcons even received a second chance at a title entering the final weekend of the regular season. They only needed a sweep at last-place UAH to tie Michigan Tech and Minnesota State for first place. But BG played poorly in the series opener, dropping a 7-5 decision. It turned in a solid effort in Game 2 en route to a 5-0 win.
“We didn’t take advantage of those opportunities,” Bergeron said. “We let them slip through our hands a little bit.”
The Falcons beat Bemidji State in a three-game quarterfinal series, but didn’t play consistently well in the semifinal loss to Minnesota State.
Adding to BG’s frustration and disappointment is Ferris State — which finished fourth in the league, seven points behind the Falcons — beat Michigan Tech and Minnesota State in the WCHA Final Five to win the playoff championship and earn the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA playoffs.
The Falcons posted a 4-3, 6-2 sweep of Ferris the Ice Arena Feb. 26-27.
BG hasn’t won a regular-season league title since 1987, a league playoff title since 1998 or played in the NCAAs since 1990.
The Falcons were second in the WCHA coaches poll last fall, while Ferris was sixth. Minnesota State was first, while Michigan Tech was third, one point behind the Falcons.
“Ferris State went to Grand Rapids, they won two games, they’re going to a national tournament,” Bergeron said. “They finished fourth in our league. We need 27, 28 guys, whatever it is, those are their expectations and they believe as an individual, this is how they contribute, individually and collectively, they’re not going to stand for less.”
The BG coaches and players are holding their annual post-season meetings this week. The team’s strength and conditioning program for next season begins next week, and will continue through the summer and finish the week leading into the team’s Canadian exhibition in early October.
The players will go through strength and physical testing in August when they return to school.
Bergeron said the team finished the season with no major injuries.
“We’re focused on getting our level of strength and conditioning off the ice back to where it was when the season started,” Bergeron said. “That’s a big mountain right now when you look at it from a returning guys perspective. That’s hard because it’s a lot of hard work. That’s where I’m hoping the expectations are such that we let an opportunity go this year, and we’re not going to let that happen again.
“We’re doing to do everything from an individual basis and a collective basis, not to let it happen again. So that come this Monday next year, we’re preparing for the national tournament, not talking about what’s the spring like, saying good bye to our seniors.”
Bergeron still wants his players to hold each other accountable for what happens on and off the ice, saying that’s the difference between a good team and a great team.
“When guys fail the conditioning test, I shouldn’t be the only one mad,” Bergeron said. “You go home and do your work, and you come back as my teammate and you’ve proven you haven’t held up your end of the bargain. It’s absolutely huge. But I also want it to be you will or you won’t. And if you don’t, you’re going to get exposed for it. Now, it’s going to be somebody else’s opportunity.
“When you start talking about hockey opportunity, whether it’s in the lineup, whether it’s 5 on 5, power plays, penalty kill, whatever it is, you start talking about taking people’s opportunity away because they weren’t willing to prepare, you usually get their attention.
“All I can do is continue to tell them that’s where we are, that’s where we’re going, that’s where we need to be. If you don’t want to take advantage of your opportunity and you’re not willing to prepare, it’s going to be somebody else’s opportunity.”
But the coaches have limited contact with the players during the summer. As a result, Bergeron is hoping peer pressure will take over.
“It’s much more difficult for a teammate to let his teammate down than it is disappointing the coaching staff because they didn’t do what they were supposed to do during the summer,” Bergeron said. “But from a coaching staff perspective, what we control is who is on the ice, who is on the power play, who kills penalties, who starts in goal. We can control that. If you’re not willing to prepare, then you take those things away. Then, all of a sudden, you get people’s attention.”
“I always think we’re close,” Bergeron said when asked if he thought the Falcons were close to being a team where the players held each other accountable. “I just want our program to believe the expectations are real.
“I’ve consistently said, ‘If you’re on our roster, we believe you help us win games. If we don’t believe you help us win games, at some level, whether it be practice, whatever, if you don’t help us win games and that’s our evaluation, we don’t think you should be on our roster.’
“If you’re on the roster which means you help us win games or we feel you can, you should be bought into these expectations, individually and collectively. The individual expectations start with a willingness to prepare. If that preparation that day is practice, great. If that preparation is the track doing what you’re supposed to be doing, you need to be willing.”
The Falcons haven’t won a championship, yet. Minnesota State has won the other two playoff titles. Ferris won the first regular-season title in the new WCHA in 2014, followed by Minnesota State last season, and Michigan Tech and Minnesota State this season.
“We have kids who are willing,” Bergeron said. “We haven’t won any championships to where they know what they’re missing out on. How awesome was that to win that championship and the next year we don’t? We haven’t done that. We’ve talked about a good year is 20 wins and in the conversation. A great year is north of 20 wins and winning championships.
“This year would be considered a good year. Our guys know the difference between a good year and a bad year. I don’t think they know the difference between a good year and a great year.”
The Falcons have played in their league semifinals four times in the last six seasons. They dropped a 3-2 double-time decision to Michigan in the 2012 semifinals of the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
“We need somebody to be the first to do it,” Bergeron said. “We have to find a way to make this happen. How close are we to doing that from a roster situation, from a player to player situation? We’re getting real close. But the proof will be in the results come the end of the summer, come the beginning of next year in terms of how willing were guys and we’ll see. That’s yet to be determined.”
Bergeron didn’t think BG’s off-season and conditioning wouldn’t be significantly more difficult this season.
“We’re not in punishment mode. We’re in preparation mode,” Bergeron said when asked if the workouts might more difficult to truly find out which players are committed and which players aren’t.
“Might it be a little more difficult? You’re always trying to put people in situations that challenge them mentally because we know we’re going to get challenged mentally during the season from an adversity standpoint. I don’t think it’ll be a whole lot different from years past. I don’t. I do think there will be some mental challenge. There will be some physical challenge. But we have guys who work physically hard. Usually the mental side takes over and either beats you down or you work through it and drive through it and you grind through it and realize you can.”
The coaching staff’s role
Bergeron said he’ll talk to coaches who have been in a similar situation to see what advice they can offer as to how the Falcons can reach the next level.
“You go with what you think is right,” Bergeron said.
Bergeron spoke with the team’s leadership group Tuesday. Junior Sean Walker was BG’s captain this season and is expected to be the captain again next season.
Matt Pohlkamp, Tyler Spezia, Mitch McLain and Mark Friedman are among the other candidates to be captains and assistant captains next season. Pohlkamp will be a senior next season, while Spezia, McLain and Friedman will be juniors.
“My feeling is you meet with next year’s (leadership) group, and you put the onus on them that we together have to take that step,” Bergeron said. “I’m not criticizing the leadership of this year’s group. This year is over.”
But one has to wonder about the leadership this season, given the inconsistency of the team during the second half, and its failure to play well against Alabama-Huntsville and Minnesota State late in the season when league championships were on the line.
Perhaps the Falcons even were a bit complacent after back-to-back winning seasons in 2014 and 2015. BG was 16-15-6, 13-11-4 during the 2013-14 season.
Bergeron said BG’s inconsistent play this season also happened in practice.
“We’re going to try to learn from this year,” Bergeron said. “We’re going to try to change, tweak, make the adjustments we need to make. What do we want next year to be about and that starts on Monday with a willingness to prepare. Every day until we get to next season, I’m going to be doing everything I can do from a research perspective, talking to other people perspective and getting opinions on what exactly we need to do to take that step.”
The Falcons graduate leading scorer Mark Cooper, but the next 10 scorers could return. BG also could return six of its top seven defensemen, including first-team All-WCHA pick Friedman and Walker, who was named to the second-team. Goalie Chris Nell, a sophomore this season, also could return.
“There’s going to lots of pieces in place next year,” Bergeron said. “There’s going to be experience. There’s going to be talent. There’s going to be internal competition. There’s going to be lots of good pieces in place.
“What do we do with that, that’s what we’re talking about. It starts with the leadership of the seniors, and then we go from there. I’m going to be doing everything I can do, and the coaches are going to be doing everything they can do to take that step.”
Bergeron said he “expects everybody (all non-seniors) to be back, but history proves there’s always a chance you lose somebody you expect to get back.”
Bergeron said goalie Ryan Bednard, defenseman Alec Rauhauser, and forwards Lukas Craggs and Casey Linkenheld will join the team next season, adding 3-4 other recruits still could be added.