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It’s January 1996, the first month of the second half of the college hockey season, and the CCHA has settled into its usual “two-tier” system. The usual suspects — Michigan, Michigan State, Lake Superior, Miami — crowd the top, while the rest of the league looks up from below, behind in everything from points to wins to talent.

In January 1996, the Ferris State Bulldogs were one of the second-tier teams trying finish eighth or better to make the CCHA playoffs. The Bulldogs were a respected team, with a win against Miami and tie against Michigan State, and by the end of January, they had won seven CCHA games. With three left against Alaska-Fairbanks, Ferris State was expected to hang on to that last playoff spot, to earn the right to face Michigan in the first round of the CCHA playoffs.

But seven wins were all the Bulldogs would get. With two losses and a tie versus UAF, Ferris State would miss the playoffs — for the first time in 11 seasons since the team first joined the CCHA.

“That was really difficult, from the standpoint of the kids,” says Bob Daniels, Ferris State’s head coach since the 1992-93 season.

“It had nothing to do with effort on the part of the players,” says Daniels. “Sometimes when you struggle through a year, it becomes a lost season. I don’t think that happened for us last year. Right down to the last minute, we were trying to gain a spot in the playoffs. At no time did we throw a shovel of dirt on the season and say, ‘Let’s wait til next year.’

“What was most impressive about last year was the ability of our players to hang together. It just didn’t happen for us last season, but again it was not lack of character by our kids.”

It’s January 1997 now, a year later and, seemingly, a world away from where Ferris State was at this time last season.

With a record of 7-8-3 in the CCHA, the Bulldogs already have 17 points, good enough in this season of league parity to flirt with fourth place and home-ice advantage.

Good enough to defeat and tie Notre Dame. Good enough to beat Miami, to tie Michigan.

Good enough, without a doubt, to make the playoffs.

Drew Famulak, the assistant coach who recruits for Ferris State, says that the success of this season is no fluke. This is something the Bulldog coaching staff has planned for all along.

“We’ve tried to build more of a skating team,” says Famulak. “We’ve just felt that we needed a couple of kids back there to handle the power play. We’ve been looking for good defensemen, and developing the defensemen we have.”

Four years ago, when Ferris State went looking for the players who would make this season possible, Famulak looked toward western Canada and toward the heartland of the States. For good measure, Famulak took a look around the state of Michigan to see who, among that state’s crop of talent, hadn’t been spirited away by the Wolverines and the Spartans.

Famulak found an outstanding recruiting class, now juniors: ten of them. Nine players in this class — kids from Kamloops, Regina, Grand Marais, Wixom, Livonia, South Range, and a few other points west — are forwards.

This is a junior class that’s making noise, just as Famulak knew they would. “I think our junior class has done a good job of stepping forward,” he says.

He’s right.

Junior right winger Joel Irwin leads the team in league scoring, with eight goals and 11 assists. Through mid-January, the Bulldog junior class was responsible for 46 of 59 Ferris State goals in CCHA play.

Famulak says that this junior class is especially ready this season because of the difficulties the team experienced the last two years. Because this class was such a big one, many of the current juniors played as soon as they came to Big Rapids.

“They had to,” says Famulak. “We needed them.

“They’ve seen a lot of crucial situations as freshmen and sophomores,” says Famulak, and that prepared them to compete, even if it took them a couple of seasons to prepare.

It’s not just the ability to score goals — or the Ferris State junior class — that has turned this team around this season. It’s a host of things, both tangible and intangible, that Famulak says contributes to the Bulldogs’ success.

“We recruited kids that work hard, kids that work hard and compete,” he says. “And it’s a very close-knit team.”

Famulak says that some of the best leadership on the team has come from its senior class of just two players, Jeff Blashill and Brett Colborne. “Our kids really look up to these two.”

Colborne has blossomed into a solid defenseman who can play well on both sides of the puck, with three goals and 11 assists in league play through mid-January. But Jeff Blashill’s numbers in net for the Bulldogs this season are less than impressive: one period of play and three goals.

Numbers don’t always tell the whole story, says Famulak. “Jeff’s leadership skills are probably the best on the team. He’s great in the locker room.

“He’s just a great kid. He’s a finance accounting major, he’s very intelligent. The players really respect him.”

Leadership, the fruition of an offense planned for years ago, a defense shored up by freshmen Scott Lewis and Matt Golden, and unexpectedly good goaltending from rookie Vince Owen have combined to make Ferris State more competitive than anyone expected this season. In light of the Bulldog hockey program’s recent history, however, this success is more than the sum of one team’s ability to turn their luck around after not making the playoffs.

“We’ve kind of gone through a couple of phases,” says Daniels. “One of the things that was difficult for us was about five years ago, when the university’s administration was going to drop the program.”

Ferris State had just hired a new president who didn’t see value in college athletics. One of her first moves was to propose the dismantling of the hockey program. “She wasn’t really pro-athletics,” says Daniels. “It didn’t matter if we were popular or not.”

That was just after Daniels took the Bulldog helm in the 1992-93 season. In Daniels’ rookie season, the Bulldogs had one of their best years ever, with 21 wins and a trip to the CCHA semifinals. It was only the fourth time in Bulldog history that the team had won 20 games, and the first time a rookie coach won more than 16.

Fortunately for Bulldog hockey, the university’s board of directors saw a way to delay the Bulldog hockey eviction. “The board of trustees didn’t want to say no to her,” says Daniels, “but they didn’t want to see it go through.”

They worked out a compromise with the university president, an evaluation period to determine whether or not the program should stay. This was a way for the new president to save face in what was clearly an unpopular move, and a way for the hockey program to buy some time.

Although there were really no evaluation criteria to determine the program’s future — Daniels says it was clear from the beginning that the hockey program would stay — the situation created great difficulty for Ferris State hockey, and did a lot to undo what Daniels had done as an assistant from 1989-92 and as head coach.

“During that time we weren’t allowed to recruit,” says Daniels. “After two years, the board said hockey’s here to stay…but the residue remains, and those were some lean recruiting times.”

When Daniels first arrived in Big Rapids, Mich., his goal “was to build a competitive program where my kids were respected in community programs as well as the classroom. I felt the first thing I wanted to accomplish was some stability. We had rolled over three coaches in a four-year span. It was pretty important, I thought, to create some stability here.”

Having done that, now he says, “My goal has changed. Now we want a championship. [Last year] we felt all along that if we had gotten into the playoffs we could get to the Joe.”

With their sights on a league title, the Bulldogs are, in Famulak’s words, “very upbeat.”

Daniels says that the success of the hockey team is tied to the overall atmosphere at Ferris State, where he says good things are happening.

“There’s a new library, a new recreation center. We’ve updated and remodeled many of the academic buildings. It’s a tremendous atmosphere. Hockey is a big part of that and athletics in general is a big part of that. The whole thing is about growth.

“It’s like a renaissance period for the university.”

A renaissance for Bulldog hockey, as well.