Bowing Green captain Sean Walker, center, is cheered by his teammates after scoring a goal in a WCHA playoff game vs. Ferris State. BLADE PHOTO
BOWLING GREEN — It is like a lost hockey city.
You half imagine a young archaeology student discovering the BG Ice Arena and asking Indiana Jones, “Did this used to be Bowling Green?”
Beneath a quarter century of dust, the old barn tells some kind of story. Bowling Green had Hall of Famers on the ice (Rob Blake and Ken Morrow), legends on the bench (Ron Mason and Jerry York) and in the broadcast booth (Mike “Doc” Emrick), and a community that put the lunacy in the Madhouse on Mercer.
If only all those championship banners on the wall could talk.
“The one thing that everybody comes through this building recognizes is the history,” Bowling Green coach Chris Bergeron said.
Which is great.
And not so great.
“What there hasn’t been is a lot of ‘present,’ ” Bergeron said. “That’s something we want to change.”
The Falcons will have their chance Saturday night.
With a trip to Houghton, Mich. — population: 7,650 — in the farthest reaches of the Upper Peninsula, Bowling Green can properly announce its return from college hockey’s backcountry.
The same Falcons program that not long ago almost was eliminated amid a stretch of 16 consecutive losing seasons is one victory from its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1990.
All that stands in the way is Michigan Tech, a few thousand roaring fans, and the winner-take-all Western Collegiate Hockey Association title game.
A virtual Game 7.
Does it get any better?
“I don’t think so,” Bergeron said.
Unless, of course, the Falcons win. Then this comeback story gets better.
We’ve heard a lot about the thin ice underfoot Bowling Green hockey, the one-time powerhouse that captured the national title in 1984 before falling into disrepair in the 1990s. The years of losing. The Bring Back The Glory fund-raising campaign that saved the program in 2009. The conference realignment that left the Falcons in the cold in 2013. (See: The Big Ten liquidating the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.)
But if there was one season that encapsulated the setbacks and spirit, it was this one.
Bergeron, a no-nonsense former assistant at Miami (Ohio), steadily had revived the program since his five-win debut season in 2011. In a sport where you don’t need to be the biggest or richest school to be among the best of 60 Division I hockey programs — the current top four includes Minnesota-Duluth, Denver, and Western Michigan — Bowling Green appeared well on the road back to relevance.
The Falcons missed an at-large bid to the 16-team NCAA tournament by percentage points in 2015 and had its most talented team in years this season. Led by All-WCHA junior goaltender Chris Nell and defenseman Mark Friedman — a third-round pick by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2014 — a veteran group that returned 10 of its top 11 scorers opened the year ranked 14th nationally and was the consensus choice to win the WCHA.
Then the puck dropped.
So did BG. The Falcons began the year 0-6-1.
One of Bergeron’s assistants advised, ”Let’s not go walk out in traffic just yet.” But he wasn’t so sure. A team freighted with big expectations was barely competitive, losing by six goals to Western Michigan one weekend, then by five to Ohio State the next.
“We were embarrassed,” Bergeron said. “People remember how bad we were with my first teams — and that didn’t happen with those teams.
“How did this happen? It obviously was mental, and it was obviously something we struggled with as a group.”
Bergeron can’t diagnose precisely what changed from there or he would have played doctor sooner. But for BG, the water leveled, then surged. Especially in the net, where a hot goalie this time of year is the equivalent of a flame-throwing ace pitching every game of the playoffs. Nell rode a program-record three-game shutout streak into the postseason and has hardly cooled in the conference tournament.
Bowling Green (21-17-2) swept Ferris State and league champion Bemidji State — which went a combined 5-3 against the Falcons in the regular season — to set up this one-off showdown at Michigan Tech (22-14-7).
As the big game nears, Bergeron thinks of so many people. He thinks of former BG president Carol Cartwright, who assured him, “There’s an opportunity here to do something special.” He thinks of BG’s first hockey coach, Jack Vivian, and Scott Hamilton, and Blake and everyone who poured their heart and money into a $5 million fund-raising campaign that staved off the program’s extinction, restoring the old arena and hope that a night like Saturday would again be possible.
“It would mean a bunch,” Bergeron said of returning to the NCAA tournament. “There are a lot of people who fought really hard for this program to become relevant again — even before I came here. I would really be proud for them, and I would be happy for them.
“Man, it would really be a great thing to share with all those people. ... We’ve talked about responsibility since we’ve gotten here, and that responsibility turns out to be a lot bigger than I even thought it was. It would be a really great thing to be able to put up a banner and put our stamp on this.”
For Bowling Green hockey, there is no time like the present to recapture the past.