By Robert Desimone
" it was tough." A genuine and noticeable pause on the line as Bowling Green Falcons senior Matt Pohlkamp reflects on the low points of a season that began with the lofty expectations of winning the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA). Fast forward just a few short months and Bowling Green now prepares for the program's biggest game in nearly 30 years as they travel to Houghton, Mich. to face off Saturday night against the Michigan Tech Huskies for the 2017 WCHA Championship, the Broadmoor Trophy, and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
But it's not just the Falcons chasing after the elusive Broadmoor Trophy as the Huskies, hosting the championship game under this year's new WCHA playoff format, also seek to finish what they started under head coach Mel Pearson in the revival of one of college hockey's traditional powers.
Senior classes typically have a special place in a program and can leave a lasting footprint. For these two schools, who parallel each other in many ways, this years' senior classes have helped turn around decades of struggles. After the program at Bowling Green was nearly cut eight years ago, head coach Chris Bergeron has helped lead the turnaround and he gives substantial credit to this group of seniors.
"We just won our 80th game as a group," Bergeron said. "20 wins a year in college hockey is a great number as far as I'm concerned. These seniors are guys that may not have come here for the winning, but now it's part of our culture and they're the reason for that."
Pohlkamp and his fellow seniors entered their freshman year at Bowling Green facing an uphill battle after the club finished ninth in conference the year before, but that didn't deter them from looking to the future. "Immediately when I got here, the people were some of the best people I ever met. That senior class, those guys were motivated and immediately the intention was to start winning games and turn this program around. I don't think I ever had a doubt in my mind this was the right place to be and it was great."
The Falcons finished third in the WCHA their freshman year and have continued to build over the past three years, while ultimately falling short of the WCHA Championship game and a berth into the NCAA Tournament. The improvement did not go unnoticed, however, as the Falcons entered this season as the media and coaches' pick to finally take that jump and win the WCHA, although that appeared to be in jeopardy early as the Falcons got off to a slow start, winning just one game in the month of October.
"Internally it was a tough time, a lot of questions were being asked and we weren't winning hockey games," Pohlkamp said. "We couldn't figure out what was going on, we weren't gelling as a team and weren't really being a good team to each other, and that was a tough time for us."
With Coach Bergeron challenging the senior group, the team responded with a 6-1-2 record in November to right the ship.
"We've leaned on the seniors and upperclassmen, and continued to impose on them that we will go as far as they take us. It's been difficult, but full marks and credit for the group this senior class has found a way."
The key for Bergeron is not just that they found a way to produce on the ice, but they set an example for the team, one that has given them confidence and has them playing the type of hockey they expected to see all year. The club is now on a seven-game winning streak, the longest since the program's last conference championship as a member of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association in 1987-88, as they appear to be peaking at the right time. It was all part of a long process that required Coach Bergeron to be tougher on his seniors, especially his three senior forwards, in reminding them of their potential.
"Everything he did was to get us going in the right direction and I think it's definitely helped," Pohlkamp said. "Looking back, I'm really happy he did that, and he kind of woke us up a bit. For us seniors, this is our last year and we didn't want to waste that."
Meanwhile, with the Falcons working to overcome their adversity, the Huskies had their own early struggles to worry about, with another senior group that entered the season with high expectations of their own.
"A slower start was definitely anticipated, we had a tough schedule," Pearson said. "I think some people were questioning our nonconference schedule early, but we played Minnesota Duluth, Notre Dame, and Western Michigan and Michigan in the Great Lakes Invitational, and I think that was important."
Michigan Tech was swept the first two weekends at Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State, scoring just four goals while allowing 17 in those first four games. A few weeks later, Tech was off to a 1-5-2 start after a home series against Alabama Huntsville, and a 4-3 loss and 3-3 tie on the road to Michigan.
"We got off to a rough start, just couldn't seem to keep the puck out of the net and couldn't seem to score," Pearson added. "At that point we made a change in goal to a freshman, Angus Redmond, and from that point on we started to gain some momentum and our team's been pretty good."
Redmond posted 19 saves in a 2-0 shutout over Northern Michigan, followed by a 29-stop performance in a 5-1 victory in Marquette the following night to earn a weekend sweep over the Wildcats. Redmond has posted a 21-9-5 record, including the nation's third-best goals against average, at 1.78.
"It was definitely a little disheartening early when you go into those games looking to be successful like we have in the past and we didn't find that success," senior defenseman Cliff Watson said. "But it was the Northern weekend where we got a sweep and the year kind of turned around. I couldn't say enough about [Redmond], he's a good kid on and off the ice and he works hard, so it's good seeing him have success."
Much like Bowling Green, however, it was the anchor of senior leadership in the locker room that has stabilized the team as they now prepare for their second WCHA Championship game in three years.
"Our seniors have really emerged and that's really the strength of our team and the story of our team," Pearson added. "It's like having another coach, or coaches, in the locker room. We've got such a good group of seniors that are leaders and that's invaluable; they've taken ownership of the team, they do the hard work and the heavy lifting."
Watson, the team's captain, has been an anchor of one of the nation's most stifling defenses, currently ranked fifth in the country in goals against (2.16/game) and penalty kill percentage (86.7%).
"You're looking for someone who is going to do all the right things on the ice, in the weight room, the classroom, in the community, how they carry themselves, especially when you're not looking over their shoulders, and that's what Cliff is."
Glowing words from Coach Pearson, who is also quick to point out that Watson does not do it alone. The Huskies enter Saturday having nine players with at least 20 points, which includes contributions from all areas.
"The thing that's really helped us is our depth. From seniors Reid Sturos, to Mike Neville, Watson, and Shane Hanna on the back end, they've picked up the slack for us and really led the way."
The depth extends far beyond the seniors though, with junior Joel L'Esperance leading the team with 26 points (10-16=26), and freshman Gavin Gould the hero of Game 3 of the WCHA semifinals tied with Sturos for the team lead in goals with 11. The Huskies also have three freshmen (Gould, Alex Smith, Mitch Reinke) and a sophomore (Jake Lucchini) with at least 19 points, giving Tech an offense that creates many problems for opposing teams.
"You tell your team, no matter when you're out there, or who you're out there against, that they're really good," Bergeron said of the Huskies. "They do it by committee with their depth and it makes it very difficult because they all play hard, they all skate, they all compete, and they have guys that can hurt you offensively, and guys that can shut you down defensively."
Much like Michigan Tech, though, Bowling Green is second in the WCHA with eight players posting at least 20 points, relying on their depth as a key for success.
"That's becoming the trademark of our group," Bergeron said. "It's what we've come to expect from our program and the individuals within it. It has to be a collective group effort where we get the best version of the people in our lineup and that's the responsibility they have. It's going to be difficult, but if you want to come here that's a responsibility and you're going to be in games like this and you have to perform."
A game like this. One game to win a conference championship. In this instance, it's a new and rare opportunity to win on campus, thanks to an offseason change in playoff format from the WCHA.
"We love it, we think it's a great idea," Pohlkamp exclaimed. "Going to play in the other teams' home building, it's a blast, there's nothing better than going to another teams' rink and winning games."
"I'm just excited for what Saturday is going to bring as far as the atmosphere, energy, and intensity in the building, that's what a championship game should have and all indications are its going to, so I think they'll enjoy that," Bergeron added.
It's a game and an opportunity for a Bowling Green group that has come so close to taking that next step, and is primed to finally take advantage of the opportunity.
"This is an opportunity we have, let's not assume we're going to get another one," Bergeron said. "We talk about leaving this place better than they found it. Well this group and Matt Pohlkamp are leaving this program better than they found it four years ago. From a coaching standpoint, seeing the excitement on their face, the energy and excitement leading up to this game, I'm really happy for them. I think they deserve it and I'm really happy they get to experience it."
A sentiment echoed by Pohlkamp as he reflects on the journey at Bowling Green.
"We've been trying to get to this championship game for four years now and finally made it so the emotions are pretty high. We have a lot of respect for them and we have to come out and want it more, because they're going to be tough to play against and there's no tomorrow."
And, as the Falcons make the trip up to Houghton, it's the Michigan Tech seniors who are hoping to finish off their own storybook ending to their careers in a game that is expected to live up to the hype.
"Honestly, anytime you have another team with a senior class that resembles your own you respect them, you respect the way they play, and knowing they're kind of in the same boat in how they built their program back up and that's pretty special," Watson said.
With that, though, Watson's focus is on the opportunity they have to win the Broadmoor Trophy in front of their home fans and get another shot at the NCAA tournament for the second time in his career.
"It's something special for sure, especially when you're able to bring it to a town like Houghton, Michigan, with the history we have here. It's one of the coolest opportunities we've had as a senior class, to have the trophy in the building, it will be something special and the energy will be unmatchable."
Energy in a building that will be hoping for Michigan Tech to win the first one-game, on-campus WCHA playoff championship since the Huskies beat North Dakota, 6-4, in Grand Forks, N.D. on March 13, 1965.
"I think it's been a tremendous move on the league's part," Pearson said. "As much as you want to get them to understand it's just another game, it's hard to do that. You don't get the opportunity very often to play a championship game, at home, in front of a great crowd of family and friends and your fellow students. It's an opportunity they've earned."
Either way come Saturday night, a group of seniors will skate victorious around the John MacInnes Student Ice Arena, celebrating a championship that will be a result of a commitment by schools, coaches, players and fans to return their programs to the top of college hockey.
"There's a lot of people excited about Bowling Green hockey and proud again," Bergeron said. "There's talk of Bowling Green hockey at this playoff time, championship time of year, a lot of people both on this campus and off that are proud of this program once again, and to me that's a good thing."
Added Pearson, "If you do it the right way and believe in yourself, have the backing of the administration, and surround yourself with good people you've got a chance to have a good program and that's what it's all about. This is the 96th year of varsity hockey at Michigan Tech, so we've had a long and storied past and this is another demonstration that Michigan Tech has a good hockey program and is recognized within college hockey as being a program with prominence. We just have to go out and grab the opportunity [on Saturday], seize the moment."