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March 14, 2013

by Kyle Kujawa -

NCAA hockey is coming to Grand Rapids, as Van Andel Arena will host the West Regional of the 2013 NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament on March 29 and 30! Four of college hockey’s top teams will compete in West Michigan to secure a spot in next month’s Frozen Four in Pittsburgh, and fans can purchase a two-day, three-game pass for just $65 by clicking here. Several Griffins have participated in the NCAA tournament, and we’ll highlight their experiences throughout March.

When Chad Billins signed with the Grand Rapids Griffins last summer, he was just hoping for a shot to crack an AHL team’s lineup on a regular basis. After a torrid, point-per-game start to the season, an appearance at the AHL All-Star Classic and his first professional hat trick, it’s safe to say he’s turned enough heads and surprised even himself.

But to fans of the collegiate game, his success didn’t come out of nowhere. Just under a year ago, Billins was at the center of college hockey’s biggest stage, leading his Ferris State Bulldogs to the national championship game.

“It was an awesome experience,” said Billins. “It was exciting to be able to play on the big stage. The tournament is so exciting because it’s a one-game elimination.”

As a senior defenseman and co-captain for the Bulldogs, Billins was part of a class that helped turn around a struggling hockey program that had finished ninth in the 12-team CCHA his freshman season. They followed that up with third- and fifth-place finishes before winning the conference in 2011-12 for just the second time ever.

“Ferris only had one other tournament appearance, so to think that we were going to make the tournament and go far at the beginning of the season was a probably a little bit…optimistic,” said Billins, pausing to find the right descriptor.

Despite their underdog status, the Bulldogs had the support of the only group that mattered: themselves. After a six-game winning streak to start the season and another impressive run in January, Billins realized that his team could be special.

“I think it was when we went down to Notre Dame and swept a series down there to take over first place in the CCHA,” said Billins of one of the team’s defining moments. “Once we finally got in first, guys started believing that we could put a run together.”

The all-time standings of schools ranked by NCAA tournament appearances include many names college hockey fans would expect to see: Michigan, Boston College, Boston University, Minnesota, North Dakota and Denver. Ferris State drew Denver in the first round of the tournament, and met Boston College in the final game.

“We didn’t really look down the roster to see how many NHL draft picks they had on those teams,” Billins said. “Obviously, they have good programs. They seem to be able to put it together year-in and year-out. It’s pretty special to be able to play them. They called it a ‘David vs. Goliath’ matchup.”

While the university from Big Rapids, Mich., isn’t quite a household name like the other college hockey powers – Billins often recounts how “Michigan” had to be included in parentheses beside the school’s name on the official lineups – it was hardly the mismatch that it looked on paper. The Bulldogs were among the nation’s top teams all season, even earning a first-place ranking in the NCAA poll for a two-week period, marking another first in the program’s history.

The Bulldogs rolled through the Denver Pioneers, Cornell Big Red and Union Dutchmen en route to their meeting with the Boston College Eagles in the championship game. They ultimately fell by a 4-1 score, but Billins notes that it was up in the air for most of the game.

“The score didn’t really indicate the game at all,” recounted Billins. “They had an empty-net goal to make it four after scoring their third goal with only a few minutes left. It was basically 2-1 the whole game. Both teams had a couple breakaway opportunities, but we just fell short.”

Although “David” wasn’t victorious in this version of the famed fable, college hockey pundits took note of the school’s efforts. Billins earned many individual accolades, including the CCHA Scholar Athlete of the Year and All-CCHA First Team, as well as a nomination for the CCHA Best Offensive Defenseman award. Looking back, the sting of the loss is balanced by the joy of making the run with a close-knit bunch.

“I was definitely proud,” said Billins. “Honestly, any team can win and put together a good tournament. You only have to win four games once you make it, so you just have to play as a team and anything can happen.

“I wish we were at Van Andel to be able to watch it this year, because it’s really exciting hockey,” he continued. “Any team can win, you just need a couple lucky bounces and you’re on to the Frozen Four.”

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