The Battle For Ohio: Led By Bergeron, Bowling Green Eyes Ohio State Matchup

Dave Starman, college hockey’s premier pundit, found time to speculate on Bowling Green’s chances in the “Battle of Ohio,” as No. 4 Ohio State clashes with the No. 15 Falcons in a compelling home-and-home series this weekend. 

“There’s no question they’ve got a puncher’s chance,” said Starman, who has seen the 4-1 Falcons play twice this year. “They’ve got a ton of ‘piss and vinegar’ up front, they demand a piece of skin every time the puck is on their stick. To me, that’s ‘Berg’ (head coach Chris Bergeron). That’s the player he was, so this team’s taken on his personality.”

Bergeron has had a seismic impact in Division I hockey in the state of Ohio ever since he carried his Miami of Ohio squad to the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 1993. He returned to Miami as an assistant coach in 2000, and by the middle of the decade his recruiting prowess helped turn the little school in Oxford into an NCAA Hockey powerhouse. The Redskins (now the Redhawks) went to the national tournament in Bergeron’s last five years as an assistant at Miami, including their heartbreaking overtime loss in the 2009 final.

In fact, 2009 is a critical year in the modern history of college hockey in Ohio. While Miami stood at the pinnacle of the sport, the once-proud Bowling Green program scraped rock bottom. With their building in disrepair and the program drowning in red ink, the Bowling Green administration gave serious consideration to dropping the program, a program that had won a national championship and two Hobey Baker Award winners. Falcon NHL hockey alums like Ken Morrow, Gary Galley, and George McPhee were outraged, and they took action. 

“People at the top of the university lost interest in hockey,” McPhee said. “I don’t think they had a real appreciation for how rich the program was.”

Morrow took time out from his NHL scouting duties to come back to campus and help keep the Falcons from becoming a club team like neighboring Kent State. Morrow became a face of the Falcon Booster’s new campaign, Bring back the Glory. 

“They put out a call to save the program,” Morrow said. “I went back a couple different times and spoke in front of the booster club. I try to help as much as I can.” 

Behind Galley’s urging, former NHL players got out their checkbooks, and the aging Slater Ice Arena finally got its infrastructure back on solid ground. But the most important piece of the puzzle was the hiring of a new head coach in 2010: the multi-talented Chris Bergeron. Not only was he the recruiting force that powered Miami into perennial national contenders, but he was an exceptional coach, developing all that talent that he delivered to Oxford. The Falcons’ old guard was ecstatic with the choice.

“They made a great decision to hire Bergeron,” McPhee said. 

“I think he’s done a phenomenal job,” echoed Morrow, and if you chart the program’s success since Bergeron’s arrival, his impact is undeniable. Bowling Green’s win totals doubled from eight to 16 over the four years Bergeron needed to bring in his own players, and he has averaged over 22 wins per year since then. And when you compare Miami’s win total over the last three years to Bowling Green, the Falcons have dominated 66 to 36. Bowling Green’s gain was clearly Miami’s loss.

The Bergeron Effect 

“They lost a great recruiter, and a great coach — that’s a tough loss,” Starman said. “You take out one piece of a really good puzzle, there’s a hole in it.” 

Bergeron’s success is what made Morrow a believer. 

“It’s actions for me,” Morrow said. “I base my admiration on what he’s accomplished. They’re a highly competitive team, which mirrors his personality. It’s exactly what was needed, the right guy at the right time.”

For all his success, Bergeron’s Falcons have yet to make the NCAA tournament, despite coming tantalizingly close in recent years. Morrow, McPhee, and Galley all made the NCAA tournament with the Falcons back in the day, and Bergeron thinks this year’s club might be the one to break through. 

“We’re not going to the group that’s close again,” the coach said. “We need to find a way to be the group that ‘we’re not going to be denied.’”

A huge part of controlling one’s NCAA destiny is to win the out-of-conference matchups, and none are bigger than this showdown with Ohio State, a club projected to repeat as a Frozen Four participant. Starman loves the matchup.

“Bowling Green is a hard out,” he said. “The last teams you ever want to play are games you think you are supposed to win, against a team that isn’t convinced of that. Ohio State, they’re going to play a team they probably should beat, but Bowling green doesn’t see it that way.”

Tim Rappleye is the author of "Jack Parker's Wiseguys" and the forthcoming book: "Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review," set for release in November. He can be reached @TeeRaps.

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