BOWLING GREEN When Scott Paluch was hired as Bowling Green s hockey coach in April of 2002, the university s once-proud program was in shambles.
The hottest ticket in town had become the toughest sell on campus.
Fans, fed up with nearly a decade of losing, were no longer flocking to the Ice Arena on Mercer Road.
And most of the die-hards who did show up were too young to remember the glory days when the Falcons consistently pumped out All-Americans, conference championships and victories.
I think a lot of people just couldn t take it, said Mike Wilcox, a member of Bowling Green s board of trustees. They just couldn t stand watching bad hockey anymore, so they stayed away.
The Bowling Green program reached its pinnacle in 1984, winning the national championship in four overtimes in what is regarded as one of the most thrilling games in NCAA history.
The Falcons were competitive for most of the 12 seasons after their crowning achievement. But the free fall started in 1996-97, when they suffered their first of eight consecutive losing seasons in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
The following year, Bowling Green won just eight games, which tied the school record for fewest wins in a season. By 2001-02, the program had hit rock bottom. Buddy Powers was fired after five consecutive losing seasons and replaced by Paluch, a Boston College assistant and former Bowling Green All-American.
Paluch brought plenty of passion and enthusiasm to the job, but he inherited a program that had few talented players and had become an also-ran in the CCHA.
The down cycle was too long for a program that had as much history as ours, Paluch said.
I wanted to restore the tradition and those expectations for the entire program as soon as possible.
After two rocky seasons, Paluch and his assistants, Ron Fogarty and Kevin Patrick, have Bowling Green back on the road to respectability. The Falcons (15-11-4, 12-9-3 CCHA) are closing in on their first winning season in eight years and they are looking to host their first CCHA playoff games since 1995 heading into the final two weekends of the season.
I m not at the point where I think we re all the way back yet with this program, Paluch said, but I think we re making tremendous strides.
Hockey was elevated from a club sport to varsity status in November of 1968, but coach Jack Vivian s Falcons didn t begin play until the 1969-70 season.
Since then, 61 BG players have been drafted by NHL teams and 30 have actually made it to the big show, including Mike Liut, Ken Morrow, Rob Blake, Nelson Emerson, Dave Ellett, Garry Galley and Gino Cavallini. The Falcons have produced 15 first-team All-Americans, including Paluch, and six CCHA players of the year.
Six players from the national championship team went on to play in the NHL including Iain Duncan, Todd Flichel, Mike Natyshak, Cavallini, Ellett and Galley. Three Falcons have won Olympic gold medals Ken Morrow and Mark Wells with the United States Miracle on Ice team in 1980 and Blake with Canada in 2002.
Two players George McPhee (1982) and Brian Holzinger (1995) have captured the Hobey Baker Award, given to college hockey s top player.
In the late 70s and early 80s, Bowling Green s hockey program was as good as it gets. It was very dominant on the national level, Cavallini said from Chicago, where he is a full-time rink owner and part-time coach. I turned down Michigan and Michigan State to go there.
Vivian coached the Falcons for four seasons, winning two league championships, then turned the job over to Ron Mason, who captured three titles and compiled a 160-63-6 record in six years.
Jerry York relieved Mason and won four CCHA titles, but none was bigger than the national championship York delivered in the 1983-84 season. Cavallini s dramatic, game-winning goal with 2:49 remaining in the fourth 10-minute overtime provided the winning margin in a 5-4 victory over Minnesota-Duluth.
And it came in the same building in Lake Placid, N.Y., where the U.S. had beaten the Russians four years earlier.
Cavallani s sons Aidon (12) and Max (7) will never let their dad forget that special moment in his career.
Every now and then they ll drag out the tape of the game and pop it into the VCR, Cavallini said. And then when it finally gets to the part where I score that goal, they look up at me and smile. It makes me feel good. That was certainly one of the biggest thrills I ve ever had in hockey.
York compiled a 342-248-32 record in 15 years at Bowling Green. He left after the 1993-94 season to accept the coaching job at Boston College, his alma mater.
In 2001, York led the Eagles to the national championship. He is one of only two coaches in NCAA hockey history to lead two different schools to national crowns.
The first one was very special, York said. We had a great group of guys at Bowling Green who bought into our system and carried it out to perfection. I will never forget those guys.
York was replaced by Powers, who had been an assistant on the Falcons national championship team.
After two solid seasons to start, the Falcons never won more than 17 games in any of the next six years under Powers. And they finished seventh or lower in the CCHA standings five times.
Our program started going down after Jerry left, Wilcox said. And the Boston College program started going up once Jerry got there.
Athletic director Paul Krebs cut Powers loose after the 2001-02 season. Powers was 135-149-26 in eight years, with no championships and just two winning seasons in the league.
We weren t very good, Krebs said. We were at the bottom of the standings, so you start to wonder, Can we compete with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and so on? Some of the other programs in the league had gotten better, and I think it s safe to say Bowling Green had stood still. We had really fallen behind, and that s through nobody s fault.
Buddy is a great person and I thought he was a good coach. But we just weren t having any success and I thought we needed a change. We needed to make a stronger commitment to the sport as an administration, and we ve done that.
About the same time, five former BG players who played in the NHL Blake, Emerson, Galley, Ellett and Ken Klee became major contributors in a $750,000 expansion and renovation of the Ice Arena, which included the addition of a weight room, locker room, coaching offices and an alumni lounge. That has helped significantly with recruiting.
We needed more quickness and we needed more skilled players in our program, so that s what I focused on when I took over, along with hard work and discipline, Paluch said.
The Falcons have a lot more depth on their roster now.
We have much better talent, much better athletes, and we re much more disciplined, Krebs said. BG also has tradition on its side, which Paluch is certainly well aware of. He remains the top scoring defenseman in school history, totaling 169 points on 48 goals and 121 assists from 1984-88.
Paluch then served as an assistant to York at BG from 1990-94 before following York to Boston College to serve as the Eagles top assistant.
I never thought the Bowling Green program was dead; I thought Scott would get it going again, York said. I m very, very proud of what he s done there in a short time. I think he s got the program on the way back. But he understands it s not easy.
In Paluch s first season, he suspended five players for one game for violating team rules and kicked four players off the team for disciplinary reasons.
Bowling Green won just eight games in 2002-03. A year ago, the Falcons finished 11-18-9 overall and finished ninth in the CCHA with a 9-13-6 record. They were the second-most-improved team in the CCHA.
That upward trend has continued this year in Paluch s third season behind the bench.
In November, BG entered the national rankings for the first time since 1997.
It s been a huge improvement since we changed coaches and got Scott Paluch, said senior goaltender Jordan Sigalet. He and his coaching staff have brought in some amazing recruits and you can just see the improvement every year.
Scott s brought a lot of energy to this program. He s got another great recruiting class coming in next year. I wish I had another year or two left. This program is on the rise again, no doubt.
Slowly, but surely, the crowds are starting to return to the Ice Arena. The Falcons drew 4,956 for their Jan. 28 game against Notre Dame their largest turnout since 5,016 attended the Michigan game on Nov. 16, 1996. Capacity at the Ice Arena is listed as 5,000.
We re still not where we want to be in terms of the crowds, but we re getting consistently larger crowds, which is great, Krebs said.
This season hasn t been a totally smooth one for Paluch or the Falcons, but he has persevered.
In October, he was forced to suspend seven players after a photo surfaced of a nude player laying face-down, with profanity and racial slurs written on his body with a marker.
In December, Sigalet announced publicly that he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, although Paluch and the rest of the team knew it last March. Sigalet s condition is profiled in this week s Sports Illustrated.
We ve had a lot of adversity this year, but coach Paluch has handled it beautifully, senior forward Ryan Minnabarriet said. He s the most positive person I ve ever met. He s made us the hardest-working team possible.
It has been 15 years since Bowling Green appeared in the NCAA tournament. The Falcons haven t won a CCHA championship since 1987.
We ve still got a long way to go, Paluch said. I want this program to become a factor, year-after-year. But I don t know if I m ever going to be happy until we re winning championships consistently.
Cavallini is just happy that Bowling Green is competitive again after a lengthy drought.
Scott Paluch has done a great job of putting things back together, he said. The fact that they are winning again makes everyone who ever wore the Falcon uniform feel pretty good.
Contact Ron Musselman at: email@example.com or 419-724-6474.