Bowling Green already is looking ahead to next season.
The Falcons’ vision for next season begins with the four players who will be the team’s seniors, Falcon coach Chris Bergeron said.
The team was up and down this season, but finally played consistently well down the stretch to advance to the championship game of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Playoffs and post its third straight 20-win season.
Michigan Tech posted a 3-2 double-overtime victory against BG in the championship game of the league playoffs. The Falcons finished the season 21-18-2 overall and 14-13-2 in the league, good for fourth place. BG was the coaches and media pick to win the league championship.
Brett D’Andrea, Mitch McLain, Jakob Reichert and Tyler Spezia are the Falcons’ seniors next season.
“They need to decide what they want to be as a team,” said Bergeron, who will be in his eighth season in the fall. “They need to decide what they want to be as individuals and what their leadership style is. That’s something that took this year’s leadership group way too long to figure out. It showed itself as inconsistency.”
The senior leadership starts with the vision for next season, but Bergeron would like the seniors to hold their teammates accountable during offseason workouts.
The Falcons had the fewest number of players fail their fitness last fall during Bergeron’s tenure, the BG coach said. But one of the players who didn’t pass the test was a returnee who Bergeron declined to name. Bergeron also said another player, who he didn’t name, declined to take the test and eventually quit the team. That player was junior Brandon Hawkins.
Bergeron hasn’t mentioned Hawkins by name since he quit the team the day before BG’s exhibition contest. Hawkins was the only player who quit.
“That’s because the internal pressure wasn’t there,” Bergeron said. “I’m not saying they want to let me down. I don’t think they want to let me down. But if they were thinking about letting each other down, they wouldn’t do it. They wouldn’t do it. I’m talking about the inconsistency. I’m talking about them not playing to the level of expectations for the first half of the year.
“Is next year’s leadership going to allow people to fail our fitness test? Are they going to allow guys not to put the work in this summer? Because if that mandate comes from me, that’s one thing. If it comes from each other and the players and the leadership, that’s a whole nother responsibility. That’s the message that’s going to start right away. What do you want to be? What mark do you want to leave on this program as a leadership group, as a senior class? That’s what they need to do. They need to figure that out amongst themselves.”
Bergeron said the coaching staff isn’t requiring the players to work out in BG this summer.
“But we’re getting close to that,” Bergeron said. “I don’t love that because I do believe in being a son, a brother, a boyfriend, going home. I believe in home. I just do.”
Even if the team as a whole isn’t required to stay in BG this summer, individual players could be required to.
“I believe in ownership,” Bergeron said, slapping his hand on the table. “I believe in people. You take ownership of this and where you do that is up to you. We have everything and anything you would need right here, if you want to stay. But we are getting close, and it just might start with individuals and then we say the collective. We just mandate so much. I don’t like to add to the list of things we mandate.”
Bergeron said the coaching staff has a “general idea” of who the captains and the team’s leadership ground will include next season.
“It’s going to include the whole senior class, and then what juniors?” Bergeron said. “We have a general idea, but that’s something we’ll solidify over the course of the next four months. We’re here to help (the leaders). The foundation of this program is not changing, regardless of the senior class. But the ’17-’18 senior class is going to have to figure out what they want to be and what mark they want to leave.”
BG also will have eight juniors next season— Stephen Baylis, Shane Bednard, Connor McDonald, Joe McKeown, Matt Meier, Chris Pohlkamp, John Schilling and Adam Smith.
“Those sophomores going to be juniors, that’s a big jump,” Bergeron said. “They don’t even realize how big of a jump it is just yet because you are starting to think of them in terms of upperclassmen now.
“Every returning class has a role. Obviously, the biggest role is the seniors. But the juniors and sophomores have a role as well. We’re going to try to explain to them what that role is as an individual and then as a collective class and a collective group. But it’s something that they’ve hopefully learned from the people before them.”
The Falcons were inconsistent this season, but won seven straight games late in the season to advance to playoff championship game.
But entering the final three weeks of the regular season, the Falcons were 14-17-2 overall and 12-13-1 in the league. And they weren’t in control of their fate for home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
BG was 6-3-1 in the WCHA going into December, but was 8-10 in league play the rest of the way — two of the victories coming at home against next-to-last-place Alabama-Huntsville to finish the regular season.
“They’ve also learned what not to do,” Bergeron said of next season’s seniors. “I’m not saying what that is, but there are, obviously, examples of what to do and what not to do. That’s something that’s all part of the learning process and all a part of what I expect from them with what their experience is.”
Bergeron is hoping the Falcons will build on the momentum of their late-season success. BG played well at Tech and even erased a 2-0 deficit in the third period before losing, all of that coming before a capacity of crowd of 4,466.
The Falcons were looking for their first NCAA berth since 1990 after playing in a league-championship game for the first time since 1988. BG last won a regular-season league title in 1987 and a league playoff title in 1988, both of those coming in the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
Tech hosted the WCHA championship by finishing higher than BG in the league during the regular season. The higher seed hosted all three rounds of the playoffs this season after the WCHA eliminated its Final Five in May. Tech finished second.
“You go back to the leadership,” Bergeron said. “Is that what they want, and are you going to do whatever it takes from this day forward to go earn that because that’s what Michigan Tech did. They earned that opportunity. They took advantage of it, but they earned it.”
The Falcons almost earned an at-large berth to the NCAAs in 2015, but fell just .002 short.
“We felt like that was going to be our motivating factor, and it wasn’t,” Bergeron said. “I don’t want to be gimmicky. I don’t want to be obvious.”
Now, the players are in control of the leadership and motivation for next season’s edition of the Falcons.
“I want this senior class to decide what they want ’17-’18 to be,” Bergeron said, again slapping his hand on the table. “That starts right now. Are they going to use the momentum we created (from the playoff championship game at Tech) to help them answer that question and help them lead the way? That’ll be up to them.
“(That game at Tech) showed what we can be on an everyday basis, in terms of how we defended, in terms of how we competed. We were resilient. Lots of positive signs in terms of what this team can be, even without the players we’re going to be without next year. It’ll come down to the senior class and leadership. Is that what they want? Is that what they believe?”