Opinion: Falcons looking for playoff title, NCAA berth

By March 15, 2017 Opinion
BG coach Chris Bergeron talks with the media followng his team's win over Alabama-Huntsville last month (Photo by Todd Pavlack/BGSUHockey.com).

Bowling Green has an impressive résumé.

Unfortunately for the Falcons, the most important parts of it haven’t been updated in almost three decades.

That could change Saturday with a victory over Michigan Tech in the championship game of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Playoffs.

The Falcons haven’t played in the NCAA Playoffs since 1990 when they competed in the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association. BG’s last regular-season championship came in the CCHA in 1987.

And until now, BG last played in a league-championship game in 1988 when it won the CCHA title.

A drought far too long for a program which won an NCAA championship in 1984.

And a program that was targeted for elimination, along with the closing of what was then known as the BGSU Ice Arena, by former Athletic Director Greg Christopher almost a decade ago.

The Falcons thought they were headed for the NCAAs as an at-large team in 2015, but they fell just .002 shy of the final spot. BG all but lost the at-large berth when it dropped a 5-2 decision to Tech in the semifinals of the league playoffs in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“I’m not sure I can answer because I haven’t let myself think too much about it,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said when asked what winning the playoff championship and the automatic berth to the NCAA playoff that goes with it would mean. He’s finishing his seventh season with the Falcons.

“We thought about it a couple years ago when we thought regardless we were going to get an at-large berth to the national tournament, and that didn’t happen. Then, you start to think how great that would have been, and how much it would have meant. It would mean a bunch. There are a lot of people who fought really hard for this program to become relevant again before me, before us.”

The Falcon program had one of college hockey’s elite programs during the late 1970s through the early 1990s, but it eventually started a slow decline after winning its national championship. The fall was the result of a perfect storm of reasons. Christopher said he planned on cutting the program and closing the arena for financial reasons. That closing most likely would have happened after the 2009-10 season.

But Christopher, other athletic department administrators and university officials either badly misjudged or didn’t care what the reaction to such a move would be. Once Christopher’s intentions went public, supporters of the program and the arena directed their wrath at then university President Carol Cartwright, who eventually decided to save the program and the arena.

The support came from everywhere — alums and non-alums, former Falcon hockey players and non-hockey Falcons, and community residents and those who lived outside of BG. Other users of the arena and their supporters also rallied support.

“I would really be proud for them,” Bergeron said. “I would be happy for them. This program means a lot to a lot people, probably more people than I even thought as an outsider. It would be a great thing to share with them, the people who fought hard to keep it, the people who fought hard to remind other people who how important it is. We’ve talked about responsibility since we got here. That responsibility turns out to be even bigger than I thought it was. That would be a really great thing to be able to add a banner to put our stamp on this.”

BG is one of three schools looking to ending droughts in the national playoffs this weekend. Ohio State (2009) and Western Michigan (2011) are the others. Penn State and Army are going for their first national bids this weekend.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Bergeron said. “It’s just another week, but it’s not that. I know our guys are really excited for this opportunity. They’ve gone through a lot to earn this opportunity, good and bad. They deserve the opportunity. (The coaching staff) is looking forward to it. “

Rebuilding the program wasn’t easy for Bergeron, and assistant coaches Ty Eigner and Barry Schutte, who inherited a five-win team when they were hired in April, 2010. The losing record was BG’s’ 11th straight overall and fifth straight in the CCHA. Recruiting was difficult at best, especially when rumors about the end of the program became public.

The Falcons have steadily improved during the last seven seasons, even though the early days were a struggle. Just being competitive and losing close games was a moral win, of sorts, during Bergeron’s first season when they won just 10 times overall.

But as Bergeron and his staff gradually improved BG’s level and depth of talent and program developed its work ethic, the results eventually showed on the ice.

This season was BG’s fourth straight winning record overall and third straight season with at least 20 wins. The three straight 20-win seasons are the Falcons’ first since 1988, 1989 and 1990. BG has hosted a WCHA playoff series four straight seasons and has won at least one playoff series every season under Bergeron. The Falcons also have had four straight winning records in league play.

But the Falcons still are seeking a league championship, whether it be the regular season or the playoffs. And BG wants to end its NCAA absence.

“The one thing that everybody who comes through this space or this building notices is the history,” Bergeron said. “There hasn’t been a lot of present (history). That’s something we want to change.”

But the Falcons don’t feel the weight of the program on their shoulders in terms of returning to the NCAAs, although they are aware of the program’s tradition — albeit ancient.

“Getting to the championship game means a lot,” BG senior assistant captain Matt Pohlkamp said. “Coming in my freshman year, the team the year before didn’t win a lot of games and the expectations weren’t as high. Now, we’ve won a lot of games. It’s time to start winning something because our program is headed in the right direction.”

“We know how real that (getting to the NCAAs) is,” Bergeron said. “We’ve got a great opportunity that we’ve earned. Nobody handed us anything. Let’s go take advantage of that opportunity. That’s the focus of the group.”

Bergeron said he never thought about whether he could actually return the program to its glory days as he went through his first few seasons at BG.

“I never thought about it until I was well into it,” Bergeron said. “When I was interviewing for the job, I just wanted the job. I just wanted to get an opportunity (as a head coach) where hockey mattered.”

But Cartwright convinced him the program could become successful again, and he would have the necessary resources. He came to BG after spending 10 seasons as an assistant at Miami where he helped the RedHawks to records of 226-139-37 overall and 161-83-28 in league play. Miami also made six NCAA tournament appearances, including two Frozen Four berths.

“(She) was the one who said this is an opportunity for somebody, but it’s an opportunity you could do something special here,” Bergeron said. “She felt the intensity of the hockey fan base, both on campus and off, alums and non-alums. She was the one who convinced me because I was the one who was going to have to talk to my family, potential staff family and say we’re going there, they want something special here, they want to be great again, whatever great means. Have we questioned it over seven years? Can we get back to that? Of course.

“The first couple years weren’t very good. We want to make Bowling Green hockey relevant again. We want to be in the national tournament conversation again. We want to be in the regular season/playoff championship conversation, whatever league we’re in. We want kids moving on to play professional hockey after their time here. We’re on that path, but those things really didn’t come into play in the interview process beforehand. I was just excited about the opportunity.”

The ultra-intense Bergeron praised Eigner and Schutte for keeping him on the right path emotionally throughout the process over the last seven seasons, even when the results didn’t show the team was making progress.

And this season hasn’t been easy, either. The Falcons were picked to win the WCHA by league coaches and media, but started 0-6-1 overall against what looked to be a mediocre schedule at the start of the season.

But that stretch now includes being swept by WCHA champion Bemidji State, and Ohio State, which looks like it is headed to the NCAAs. The Falcons also lost and tied against Western Michigan, which could be a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. The other loss was to traditional rival Miami.

The Falcons played well enough to win some of those games, BG held a third-period lead in two of the six losses and led in the third period of the game that ended tied. But the Falcons were flat out embarrassed during back-to-back Saturday road losses at OSU and Western in October. And those embarrassments — an 8-2 loss at Western and a 6-1 loss at OSU — never happened with the less-than-great Falcon teams of Bergeron’s first early days at BG.

Bergeron said the low point for him this season came Oct. 29, the Saturday morning after they lost at Miami 2-1 in overtime to drop to 0-6-1. And, again, Bergeron praised his assistant coaches for not “letting me walk out in front of traffic.”

The Falcons rebounded to post a 4-1 win over Miami that night to earn a split of the series. BG then played well in a 4-1 win at home against Ferris State the following Friday on Nov. 4 to improve to 1-6-1 overall 1-2 in the WCHA. But the Falcons were inconsistent most of the season until their current seven-game winning streak going into the game at Tech.

BG was 6-3-1 in the WCHA at the end of November, but was 8-10 in its final 18 games to finish fourth in the league. And the Falcons were just 14-17-2 overall after they were shut out at home twice by Northern Michigan Feb. 3-4.

Since then, BG hasn’t lost. The streak started with a 3-0 win over Mercyhurst Feb. 11 at home. Following an off weekend the Falcons used to recharge mentally, BG swept Alabama-Huntsville to finish the regular season, and swept Ferris at home and Bemidji on the road in the playoffs.

And a victory Saturday would add to BG’s proud tradition. It also could help BG’s recruiting. Playing in the NCAAs could open doors for the Falcons with elite-level recruits and entice even better players to come to BG.

“I try not to take (losing) home. My family time is my family time,” said the 46-year-old Bergeron, who has a wife, Janis, and two sons, Logan and Connor. “I don’t want to be ‘that guy.’ I want to be Chris and a dad and a husband. Now, when I sit here at 21 wins, we’ve hosted a playoff series and won, we went on the road and won, we’ve won a playoff series seven years in a row, we’ve hosted (the playoffs) four years in a row, we had 20 wins three years in a row. Now, I’m thinking what was I so worried about?

“The lesson is these are long years,” Bergeron added. “You can’t let the roller coaster dictate how you approach every day, and you have to look at the small picture which is today. Let’s get better today. Let’s develop relationships. You can still hold people accountable. You can still hold people to high expectations. But let’s keep in mind there’s perspective here.”

Kevin Gordon

About Kevin Gordon

Kevin joined BGSUHockey.com after wrapping up a 27-year run as the Falcon hockey beat writer for the Sentinel-Tribune. After providing another two years of the Falcon hockey coverage fans had grown to love over the past three decades, Kevin decided to hang up his notebook and is now enjoying the retired life. Please join us by sending Kevin a tweet and thank him for all the time he's dedicated to BGSU hockey: @KGordonBG.