The Ferris State University hockey program has had plenty of success in recent memory. For at least two Bulldog alums, that success carried over into their professional careers this past season.
First-year head coach Jeff Blashill of the American Hockey League’s Grand Rapids Griffins guided his squad to the first Calder Cup title in the 17-year history of the franchise by beating the Syracuse Crunch in the title round in June. His championship team included former Bulldog captain and rookie defenseman Chad Billins, who was in his first full year with the Griffins and played in all 100 contests.
Together, they celebrated the culmination of 100 games’ worth of work with a Detroit Red Wings farm team’s first title since the Adirondack Red Wings captured the Cup in 1982. It was the first-ever championship in nearly 30 seasons of professional hockey in Grand Rapids and came in the longest AHL season ever.
“It was a great moment and great for our players with the amount of sacrifice and effort they put into it,” said Blashill, a former Bulldog student-athlete and assistant coach. “To see the joy they had when we won it was a great feeling. It was the first hockey championship in Grand Rapids history, and it was a really cool feeling to be able to bring it back to the city, our ownership and West Michigan.”
Billins helped set the tone with an assist on the first goal of the title series and finished the Calder Cup Playoffs with a pair of goals and 12 assists for 14 total points along with a +5 plus/minus efficiency rating. The Grand Rapids rookie led all AHL defenseman in playoff scoring this season. During regular-season action, Billins totaled 37 points on 10 goals and a team second-best 27 assists in 76 contests. He placed sixth among the team’s scoring leaders while recording seven power-play goals.
“It was exciting,” Billins said. “It was a tremendous way to end my first professional season by winning the Calder Cup. It was special.”
Blashill guided the Griffins to their first Calder Cup after being appointed the teams’ ninth head coach in Griffins history last summer. He moved to Grand Rapids after serving as an assistant coach for the parent Detroit Red Wings in 2011-12, when he helped the team to its 12th consecutive 100-point season and 21st consecutive postseason appearance. Prior to joining the organization, he served as the head coach of the Western Michigan Broncos in 2010-11, earning several national coach of the year honors.
“Jeff’s a really great coach,” Billins said. “He was the guy that pushed us all year, and he’s definitely a big reason why we won the whole thing.”
Born in Detroit and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., Blashill has rapidly ascended hockey’s coaching ladder, joining his fourth team in four seasons which was capped with yet another championship effort in his distinguished career. He began his head coaching career with the United States Hockey League’s Indiana Ice in 2008-09, capturing a franchise-record 39 wins and a Clark Cup championship. He compiled a 72-43-5 mark in two seasons as the Ice’s head coach and general manager before departing for Western Michigan in 2010.
While in Kalamazoo, Blashill led the Broncos to a 19-13-10 record, doubling the team’s win total from the previous season and leading the team to its best conference finish (4th) since 1995-96. Additionally, the Broncos played in the CCHA championship game for the first time since 1986 and earned their first National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament berth since 1996. Blashill was named a finalist for Central Collegiate Hockey Association Coach of the Year and was named National Coach of the Year by College Hockey News, Inside College Hockey and USCHO.com.
The former goaltender spent four seasons between the pipes for Ferris State, earning the Bulldogs’ Rookie of the Year award in 1994-95 and a spot on the CCHA’s All-Academic Team for 1996-97. He also garnered the Ferris State University President’s Award for three straight years for having the highest grade point average on the team.
Blashill began his coaching career by spending three seasons (1999-2002) as an assistant at Ferris State University, his alma mater. He also spent six seasons (2002-08) with Miami University, helping the CCHA’s RedHawks qualify for the NCAA Tournament four times.
“I’ve been real, real lucky in my career,” he said. “I’ve been able to work for and with some great, great coaches and people. I couldn’t have had better mentors than Ferris State’s Bob Daniels (head coach) and Drew Famulak (associate head coach), who recruited me and hired me.”
Blashill noted that he continues to hold strong relationships with both Daniels and Famulak.
“They’re really good friends of mine to this day,” he said. “I rely on them a lot. I have lots of hockey talks with both of them. It’s no question that they certainly played a big part in jump-starting my career, and I’m very thankful for that.”
The Bulldog staff also played a big role in helping jump start the career of Billins. He joined the Griffins after wrapping up his senior campaign as both an All-American on the ice and an Academic All-American for his work in the classroom while helping the Bulldogs to their first-ever NCAA Frozen Four appearance and a national runner-up effort in 2011-12.
“He was with us because of the recommendation that the Ferris staff gave me when I first took the job in Grand Rapids,” Blashill said. “They were solely responsible for getting him on the team and luckily for me, I listened to them. He did a great job and was a big piece of our championship puzzle.”
A native of Marysville, Mich., Billins logged 29 points (7-22—29) and 24 penalty minutes in 43 games with the Bulldogs as a senior while claiming American Hockey Coaches Association All-America Second Team plaudits on the ice. The veteran defenseman served as a co-captain for the Bulldogs during the team’s run to the NCAA Frozen Four, where they were defeated in the championship game by Boston College. The 5-10, 175-pound defenseman skated in 149 games in four years with Ferris State, notching 67 points (17-50—67) and 108 penalty minutes.
Billins was recognized in his final season as both an All-CCHA First Team recipient and the winner of the CCHA’s prestigious Scholar-Athlete Award as the Bulldogs claimed the school’s second-ever league regular-season crown. He placed second among CCHA defensemen with 25 points (7-18—25) in 31 conference games. In 2011-12, Billins was also a finalist for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS award and earned a spot on the Senior CLASS All-America Team, which rewards academic success and the loyalty of seniors that honored their four-year commitment to their university.
“Chad’s a great competitor, a great person and a great hockey player,” Blashill said.
The success the duo helped Grand Rapids achieve this past season was rewarded for Billins as he moved a step closer to the National Hockey League by signing a one-year, two-way contract with the NHL’s Calgary Flames at the conclusion of the championship campaign. Billins will be invited to Calgary’s training camp and have an opportunity to make the team.
“It was definitely an exciting time to win the championship with Grand Rapids,” Billins said. “I just can’t thank them and Ferris State enough for the opportunity they gave me and where that has led. Before signing, I got to enjoy that for a couple weeks, and you’ll have that forever, that championship.”
Both Blashill and Billins had the opportunity to come back to Big Rapids and the FSU campus for the 27th annual Bulldog Hockey Classic-Alumni Golf Outing in early August, which featured nearly 170 golfers and was sold out for the second-straight year.
“It’s a tribute to Bob Daniels and his staff that this many people come back every year,” Blashill said. “It’s also a tribute to Ferris State and all the special feelings we have for Ferris. I just think it’s outstanding that everyone comes back for the weekend.”
For Billins, being able to come back a champion to a community where he was embraced as a collegiate student-athlete meant a great deal.
“It’s pretty special to see all of these people,” he said. “The community is a big part of why Bulldog Hockey has been so successful. They’re always welcoming and ready to support the hockey program.”