As college hockey careers go, Ferris State's Chad Billins couldn't have asked for a better way to end to his.
Not only has Billins had a career year in scoring, he's part of a very special and historic Ferris State team. For only the second time in school history, Ferris won the Central Collegiate Hockey Association regular season title and earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament, eventually clinching its first-ever spot in the Frozen Four.
It's been a special season for Billins, a senior defenseman and co-captain, who began his junior hockey career with the Alpena IceDiggers, tallying 25 points and 98 penalty minutes in 61 games in the 2006-07 season.
Courtesy Photo/Ferris State University
Ferris State’s Chad Billins, front, battles Michigan State defenseman Matt Crandell for the puck in this file photo. Billins, a former member of the Alpena IceDiggers hockey team will take the ice for the Builldogs tonight as they face-off against Union for a spot in Saturday’s title game.
"It was my first chance at playing junior hockey and being away from home. I think it helped me mature and helped me with developing my hockey skills," Billins said of his time in Alpena. "It's really, really awesome to be part of a small town community that's so supportive. It's the same here (in Big Rapids). You see signs on the bank wishing you good luck."
In Alpena, Billins, who is from Marysville, found a welcoming, supportive atmosphere. He was hosted by Alpena residents Tim and Kay Sayre and roomed with defenseman Evan West for the year he lived there.
"He's awesome, a great kid," Kay Sayre said of Billins. "His dream was to play college hockey and I'm sure he's ecstatic to be playing (for a chance to play for) for the national title."
Billins tried out the previous year for the IceDiggers and didn't make the team, but signed a tender with them and made the team the next year. Despite playing just one season with the IceDiggers, Billins established himself as one of the team's most consistent blue liners and eventually caught the eye of Bulldogs' head coach Bob Daniels.
"They had me come down for a visit (to Big Rapids) and I loved it here," Billins said.
Billins played one season with the Waterloo Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League before joining the Bulldogs.
Ferris will face off against Union at 4:30 p.m. today in Tampa, Fla, in the first of two Frozen Four semifinal games to determine the national champion. Minnesota will play Boston College in the other semifinal at 8 p.m. and the two winners will play in the championship game at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
Though they didn't fare well in the CCHA Tournament, losing a best-of-three series to Bowling Green, the Bulldogs took the NCAA Tournament by storm two weekends ago when they posted back-to-back 2-1 wins over Denver and Cornell.
Since coming to Big Rapids, Billins' role has increased every year. This season he's had a career scoring year with 29 points (seven goals and 22 assists), good for third best on the team and a +11 rating. He's also established himself as an expert shot blocker and has 174 for his career.
Another player with Alpena ties, junior winger Eric Alexander also will suit up tonight for the Bulldogs. Alexander is the son of Delton and Lisa Alexander of Walker and Patty Alexander of Kentwood. Eric is the nephew of Alpena residents Duane Alexander, Randy and Amy Hamp and Kurt Alexander of Atlanta. He is also the grandson of the late Carol Alexander and current Alpena residents, Joyce & Jerome Smigelski. Alexander has 14 points on the season for Ferris with six goals and eight assists. He played high school hockey at East Kentwood.
The only thing that could make Billins' last time in a Crimson and Gold sweater even better is a national title and if momentum keeps going in the Bulldogs' favor, they just might win one before the weekend ends.
"It was kind of a feeling of relief," Billins said of making the Frozen Four. "We worked so hard for those two games and everyone was sacrificing themselves, blocking shots. It was a feeling of relief."
Just getting to the Frozen Four is an impressive accomplishment, but the Bulldogs will have their work cut out for them if they wish to get any further. The Dutchmen were the No. 1 seed in their region and defeated Michigan State and Massachusetts-Lowell behind the stellar play of goaltender Troy Grosenick, who was a top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to college hockey's best player.
Billins said both Ferris and Union play a similar style of hockey, which should make for an interesting matchup.
"We know they have the best power-play in the nation right now. They play very strict systems, just like we do," Billins said. "I'm happy for our seniors to experience this because we've never played in the tournament before."
While he hopes that a spot on an NHL roster is someday in his future, Billins is solely focused on the task at hand this weekend and taking time to appreciate the Bulldogs' opportunity to shine on the big stage.
"It's awesome for the university and for the alumni that have helped build us this far," Billins said. "We might not appreciate it as much right now, but when we look back we'll know what a special season it was."