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March 10, 2015
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Madhouse of the Rising Sun
Once on life support, revival of Bowling Green Hockey has the program shining bright
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The Bleacher Creatures have had a lot to cheer about this season at Bowling Green

by Robert Desimone, special to WCHA.com (@CoachDesMN)

Everyone wants to be part of a winner. Just one look at the glamorous teams filled with success, championships and passionate fans, who wouldn't want to be a part of that? But for all those great programs you can think of, does anyone stop for a minute and think about how they got there? Was it always glorious? Did it always seem so easy? For example, how many people care to know that Coach Mike Krzyzewski was 111-106 in his first eight years as a head coach, including 38-47 in his first three with Duke before going to his first NCAA Tournament (where the Blue Devils were eliminated in the round of 32)? It's just easier to look at the success, admire it, and want to be a part of it. But in a world of instant gratification it's important to understand and keep in perspective all the hard work and sacrifices that go into building something great and attaining that success…just ask the current group of seniors at Bowling Green State University.


The Original Madhouse on Mercer

The Bowling Green hockey program dates back to the early 1960's as a club sport and joined the NCAA in 1969 under Head Coach Jack Vivian. The program garnered national recognition during the 1972-73 season, winning its first CCHA Tournament Championship under Vivian, before he moved on and was replaced by Ron Mason for the 1973-74 season. Mason led the team to a second CCHA Championship and its first NCAA appearance in 1977. With that success on the ice, the passion for Bowling Green hockey began to show with the fans that became known as the "Bleacher Creatures."

Started by a group of fans in 1978, the Bleacher Creatures quickly became the leaders of a fan base that created one of the most intimidating atmospheres in college hockey. Once highlighted in Sports Illustrated, the Bleacher Creatures also traveled to away games, dressed up in costumes and helped create what was known as the "Madhouse on Mercer" due to the arena's location on Mercer Road.

While the Bleacher Creatures were in full force in the student section, the on-ice success continued with multiple conference championships, and the 1984 National Championship under then Head Coach Jerry York.

Bowling Green's prolonged success had them as one of the elite programs in college hockey through the 1980's but the team began to struggle in the early 1990's under York prior to his departure after the 1993-94 season. Despite a brief glimmer of hope the following year with a 23-10-2 record, the program struggled through multiple coaching changes and seasons at the bottom of the CCHA standings. As budget concerns grew into late 2008 and early 2009, and with the team continuing to struggle on the ice, talks of canceling the hockey program as an NCAA sport escalated. With the program on the line, numerous fans, alumni and students rallied together to save the program, hoping to return the program to its once elite status.


Bring Back the Glory

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Bowling Green Head Coach Chris Bergeron
With the Bowling Green community rallying behind the hockey program, the Bring Back the Glory campaign was born. Scott Paluch resigned at the end of the 2009 season after seven years as head coach and Dennis Williams entered as interim coach for the 2009-10 season. Despite a 5-25-6 record that year, Williams was instrumental in stabilizing the program and setting the table for Bowling Green's seventh head coach, Chris Bergeron.

Of course, when Bergeron left his post as an assistant coach with a thriving program at the University of Miami, Ohio, he knew it would be a tough challenge.

"I had some pretty serious questions, there was some question in the college hockey world how committed Bowling Green was long-term," Bergeron said. "Ultimately the people who were in charge at the time were not only committed to hockey long-term, they wanted it to be great again."

Right away that summer, Bergeron got to work and – knowing the challenge ahead – set out to build a strong staff behind him to support his vision. The first two calls he made were to Ty Eigner and Barry Schutte.

"I asked them if they were interested in uprooting their families and coming to Bowling Green with me and my family, and I've been absolutely blessed to have both of them here the whole time."

Having the right staff in place was important for Bergeron, who knew that building the culture would be a team effort. The trio was on the same page when it came to building relationships and knowing the types of kids they wanted in the program. He also knew their relationship as a staff would have a trickle down effect through the program.

"We have chemistry on the staff and we feel that chemistry is building with our team," Bergeron said. "On our very difficult days those two guys keep me on track and keep me focused on what's important – which is the process of building this program back up."

Recruiting was the next big challenge and, in order to build the program, all the coaches agreed it was based on the type of person they recruited. They all believed relationships were important and they weren't necessarily looking for the most talented kid, but the ones they knew fit their vision of Bowling Green Hockey.

"Ultimately we're talking about a kid who is probably a little bit of an overachiever, a guy who, based on expectations and competition, is better than even he thought he could be."

Of course initially, that wasn't easy to find.

"We had a bunch of phones hung up on us, doors slammed in our face, junior coaches in the recruiting world telling kids not to come here because the program isn't going anywhere. Obviously that became difficult, there were some harsh personal feelings, but the one thing I learned very quickly was people do care about this program and want it to be great again, so we had support on- and off-campus, which is something we could share with recruits."

The coaches were looking for that kid willing to take a leap of faith on their plan, based off their passion and, basically, their word. While it was difficult, they were able to find two examples in forward Dan DeSalvo and defenseman Mike Sullivan.

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Bowling Green senior forward Dan DeSalvo
"They were saying things I really liked," DeSalvo said of the coaching staff. "I knew the program was struggling but one of the big things was the opportunity to play as a freshman and I thought it would be pretty cool to be part of something special and try to turn things around."

"His brother was a student and helped around the hockey office so we knew of Dan," Bergeron said. "We felt like Dan could really improve our talent level and we worked to develop a good relationship with him." Bergeron also received a commitment from Sullivan, who was very impressed in his first meeting.

"I came down with my parents in the summer time, he took me on a campus tour, rink tour, facilities, he spoke to us like he knew us and we were all very comfortable," Sullivan said.

It was the trust they had in each other, a cornerstone of Bergeron's beliefs, which made it an easy decision for Sullivan to commit, much to the delight of his coach.

"He's a fantastic kid," Bergeron said. "He's a big time student, and he played on some high profile teams as a younger guy and the feedback was that he was kind of the glue that kept those teams together because of how nice of a kid he was."

So DeSalvo, Sullivan and the rest of Bergeron's first recruiting class entered in 2011 after the coach posted an 10-27-4 record in 2010-11.

It was an uphill battle, something they do not easily forget.

"It was tough in the beginning," DeSalvo remembered. "Tough to go to practice, go to the game and try not to expect much, but we came with the working mentality every day."

It was the players believing in that leap of faith they took on the coaching staff, hearing what they had to say without proof that it would work. And despite having a good start to the 2011-12 season, the team struggled as the season wore on, leaving them last in the conference. It was then that the process meant more than the results, and Sullivan relied on their veteran goaltender, Andrew Hammond (now a rookie standout with the Ottawa Senators), to help with the difficult growing pains.

"Playing with Andrew, we relied on him so heavily," Sullivan said. "To see him compete at such a high level consistently over the entire year playing with a young team, he was able to keep his composure and I remember being very comfortable playing in front of him, because he had confidence in me. When he saw we were losing ourselves or overwhelmed he would grab us and get us to relax, he did a great job. "

Perhaps the early struggles turned that glamorous opportunity to play right away as freshmen and contribute into a different perspective. But with a strong support system and culture, the young players continued to go outside their comfort zones, and with that, continued to improve.

"Michael got thrown into the fire right away, playing in all situations basically his whole time here," Bergeron said. "Dan eats a lot of really hard minutes; he's first over the boards on our penalty kill and he's just a guy that's really been contributing. He's grown up a bunch and really matured."

As the season headed towards the end, the team was trying to focus on the process, not results, and keep the big picture in mind.

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Bowling Green senior defenseman Mike Sullivan
That, of course, was before DeSalvo scored five goals in a CCHA opening round playoff series at Northern Michigan, helping to lead the Falcons to upset the Wildcats with a 2-1 series victory.

That wasn't enough for the young Falcons squad, though, as DeSalvo had more to prove against nationally ranked Ferris State. Trailing 3-1 after two periods in the winner-take-all third game, DeSalvo scored two goals in the third period, and then scored the overtime game-winning goal to upset the Bulldogs and send Bowling Green to the CCHA semifinals at Joe Louis Arena.

The Falcons went on to lose that semifinal game in overtime to Michigan, but it was the run leading up to that game that proved why the players, and coaches, should believe.

"I have to feel that run, that three-week stretch really validated to the coaches and to the players that what we're talking about is the right stuff," Bergeron said. "We just have to stay the course."

"I remember when we won those series we knew we could compete with anyone in the NCAA," Sullivan added. "We were always maybe a little intimidated based on a team ranking compared to our standing, but after that we weren't afraid to play anyone."

With that run the program had reached a turning point, and it wasn't just in the locker room where the belief continued to grow.


The Creatures Are Alive

The playoff success in 2012 was a major step inside the locker room for Bowling Green, but it also sparked a passionate fan base waiting for something to get excited about. For Bowling Green senior and leader of the Bleacher Creatures, Ryan Sowers, it helped with his vision for what could be.

"There was passion for the program but just no students there," Sowers said. "When I was a freshman and sophomore I didn't really go to many hockey games, but when I went, I kept thinking this could be so much better."

So when Ryan was connected with Jordan Dettrow and Josh Hoke, two complete strangers, they planned to bring back the magic the Bleacher Creatures once created. The new iteration was officially unveiled on Halloween, October 31, 2012.

"We expected to get laughed at and tossed out of the arena, honestly," Sowers laughed as he looked back on that Halloween game. "They thought we were mental."

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But much like the adversity faced by Coach Bergeron after taking over the program, Sowers and the new Bleacher Creatures would not let that stop them. Using concepts learned in his business classes, Sowers and his team worked hard to gain momentum and support.

"Everything about advertising, promotions, social media, strategizing, setting goals and objectives, it was huge," Sowers said of his classes. "With my business and marketing background, I would classify myself as pretty creative, so we let our minds run wild. If we failed with a promotion, then it was ok. It's ok to fail because we're going to learn from it. Failure is an opportunity."

Using their creativity, passion and dedication to making the 'Creatures' stick, Sowers and his team slowly worked their way with various promotions to get more students to attend hockey games. And it worked.

"This is a pretty impressive kid," added Bergeron. "When you talk about getting involved in your college experience, nobody has gotten more involved than Ryan has – and, from the student perspective, he has developed hockey games into the cool thing to do."

Sowers, the recipient of a full ride to Bowling Green for academics, leadership and merit, immediately had the ability to influence and inspire others as the 'Creatures' continued to gain notoriety on campus. But it didn't happen by accident. Sowers credits his fellow members, combined with their passion and work ethic for the reasons why they have been so successful.

"I think people were hesitant at first because they didn't know if we were going to be consistent but every night we would come early. If the game started at 7 we were there at 4:30 or 5:00, setting up papers, getting promotions, talking to coaches or players, building those relationships. Once we were consistent everyone started buying in and we shot up on social media."

Even for Sullivan, that commitment from Sowers became a part of his own pre-game routine.

"Before every game I sit in the student section to reflect about the game ahead and he's always there and gives me a high five and handshake and says good luck. He bleeds Orange and Brown. It's cliché to say but he's so passionate, he does a great job."

It's that infectious passion and energy that is required to change a culture, which is exactly what the Bleacher Creatures have done at Bowling Green. And while it took time to build support, their never-ending passion and relentless efforts to succeed have turned the Bleacher Creatures into an impressive 12-person operation, or as Sowers puts it, much more than that.

"It started from day one, the Bleacher Creatures are a family," Sowers said. "I've made it a point to mentor each and every one of the Bleacher Creatures so if I'm sick, or if I die tomorrow, every single one knows I love them and every one knows how to run things." And while some may think the 'Creatures' are just some crazy fans that dress up at games, the operation is much more in depth. Each person carries a specific role and the details behind the execution are crucial to achieving the consistency that has allowed them to gain the respect and support they deserve.

"Each of us is unique and brings something special to the table. I think one of my strengths is being able to see everyone's individual strengths and how they play off each other. We're putting people in positions to succeed and grow into the men and women they want to become by the end of college. I could not do any of this without having such a great team behind me."

A similar concept to that of Bergeron, who is not just focused on creating a winning team on the ice, but developing his players into better people for the future.

"If we make them better at hockey that's not enough. We've got to help them realize there's more to life than just hockey, its how they treat people, it's what they want to be on a daily basis and how willing they are to be that. We're going to win games because of that, and they're going to walk away with degrees because of that."

So as Bergeron and his staff continued to cultivate the culture inside the locker room, Sowers and his team continued to grow attendance, something that paid off the last two years as the athletic department jumped in to support.

"We build our own promotional plan and athletics has started working with us and adopted our plan," Sowers said. "We create the theme nights, special promotions, giveaways; then, they help boost that message."

But it's not just within Bowling Green State University where the Bleacher Creatures have gained respect, their efforts in the community to help the city and local businesses resulted in a special honor from Mayor Richard Edwards, who announced February 20th as Bleacher Creature Day in the city of Bowling Green.

"Mayor Edwards and his wife Nadine have been longtime supporters of the program, and we were honored that he would consider us worthy of a day," Sowers said. "Just to go from people saying 'who are these guys' to having a day named after us, it just shows how far we've come and how far we've grown, but that directly reflects the job Coach Bergeron has done with the team."

Much like many successful people, Sowers is quick to defer credit away. Regardless of who should get the credit – and in reality it is more than just any one person – the fact is the Bleacher Creatures are back, just like the hockey program they are there to support.


The Rising Sun

While this may sound cliché, when looking at the big picture of Bowling Green, what comes to mind is 'the darkest hour comes just before dawn'. It certainly wasn't long ago that there were many questions and concerns regarding the future of the program, but through the tough years Falcons hockey is beginning to see the rewards of that hard work and belief in the vision of the program.

After a 10-27-4 record in its first year under Bergeron, the Falcons have seen consistent growth that resulted in an 18-14-6 record in 2013-14, the first winning season for Bowling Green since 2004-05.

This season, Bowling Green posted a 21-10-5 regular season record and earned the No. 3 seed in the WCHA playoffs. Ironically for the seniors, who used that road playoff series victory over Northern Michigan as freshman to solidify their beliefs in the program, they will have the tables turned this week as they play host to the Wildcats, this time as the favorite.

Of course for Bergeron, he keeps his perspective on the process and that the success is not just about winning games.

"I think sometimes success gets measured in winning and losing, and that's not fair," Bergeron said. "That's not fair to these kids, to what they've gone through. There's been a lot more winning going on than the record indicates and I'm proud of that. We came here to build this program back and I think this group of seniors has been a huge part in doing that."

"When we first came here the team was in a rough place, but I'm happy with how far we've brought it," Sullivan added. "But we're not satisfied because we want to have some results to show, we want a WCHA Playoff Championship in our back pocket, we want to play in the NCAA Tournament – that would be a great way to cap off a good career here."

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The first round of the WCHA playoffs begins Friday at Bowling Green Ice Arena and despite the series coming over spring break, the Bleacher Creatures will be in full force supporting the Falcons as they strive for a trip to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul for the 2015 Final Five on March 20-21.

Also on the line this weekend are the careers of four members of the Bleacher Creatures that are wrapping up their senior year, including Sowers.

"It's really emotional for me because I'm graduating in May," Sowers said. "I can count on my hand the number of games I have left where I'm going to be a Bleacher Creature at the BGSU Ice Arena. We're just grateful that we've gotten this far and with the team playing so well, and for all the people that have been supportive all these years."

It was easy to feel the emotion from Sowers, thinking about his final few games. But not lost in those thoughts and emotions are the memories and the important values that have been learned through their college careers, something that correlates perfectly with the team.

"We've gone through it together," Bergeron said of the hockey program rebuilding simultaneously with the 'Creatures'. "I'm trying to get our guys to understand college is not just about your hockey experience; it's about your overall experience, getting involved doing things outside your comfort zone, really experiencing what Bowling Green has to offer."

It's the idea of taking full advantage of the opportunity, in the classroom, on the ice, in the stands, in the community, or wherever it may be, that helps establish the culture you want. To implement that culture you need leaders with passion, commitment and work ethic, which is exactly what Bergeron and Sowers brought to the table.

"He's all about turning this thing around. He knows what he's talking about, he knows what he's doing, and we've developed a pretty strong relationship," DeSalvo said of Bergeron. "He's always been the type of guy that has been there if you needed to talk or get things off your chest. I'm really appreciative of that, we have a good relationship and hopefully it continues to grow over the years."

"He gave me an opportunity to play for Bowling Green Hockey," Sullivan added. "He's done a great job of teaching us the value of every single day, but also says if you make a mistake then make the next great play, which is something I'll never forget because that's a lesson not only for hockey but for life."

It is all those little details along the way, the relationships, passion, trust and doing things the right way that lead to wins; and, more importantly, success.

So, while Bowling Green prepares for its weekend series against Northern Michigan, with the careers of many seniors on the line, what won't be lost in the results is what the kids have become and what they have done to help turnaround the program – returning it to national prominence.

Perhaps it was Sowers who said it best when reflecting on his college years, remembering a record crowd of 5,353 against Ohio State back on November 14, an experience he will not forget.

"I just took a step back and thought, look at how we paid tribute to the past. We've honored tradition, and did it the right way. All the hard work, our blood, our sweat, our tears, our planning, the headaches, all the blisters, finally I know we've been a success because you're there and you know it. You walk in and say 'this is Bowling Green, this is tradition. We're the Falcons and no one is going to come into Bowling Green and leave the same.'"

A statement true not just for the teams that come to play at the 'Madhouse on Mercer', but for all those coaches, players, and fans that took a leap of faith, did it the right way, and now get to enjoy the many successes in hockey, and life, that are sure to come.