The neatness of the place beats you over the head. Even the name connotes a lovingly groomed tidiness—Bowling Green. Townspeople probably say it in the morning instead of gargling. Bowling Green.
Bowling Green, Ohio is a college town. There are 16,000 students, 25,000 townspeople. The campus buildings are perfect rectangles, with evenly spaced windows, constructed of a tawny shade of brick, which is the color of the land in March, when it is bare. The rooftops are like the land, too—flat.
There are two streets in Bowling Green: Wooster and Main. There are other streets, of course, but hardly anyone goes to them without living on them. Along Wooster are franchises of every fast-food chain in the country, but even these seem to be neater than elsewhere, spaced more or less evenly and serviced by young people who smile just like they do on TV. The motels not only have Gideon Bibles at bedside, but they are also left open to the 23rd psalm. Honest. May the Lord maketh me to do jumping jacks in green pastures if I fib. There is heavy foot traffic on both Wooster and Main, students mostly. Being friendly, they walk in groups, and they, too, are neat and tidy.
This is no hockey town. Troy, N.Y.—now that is a hockey town. Buffalo. Sault Sainte Marie. Gray, sleety, unkempt places. Towns that are cold and rough and industrial, like the sport itself. But Bowling Green? Baseball, maybe. Or bowls. Yes, lawn bowls is the sport for a town that calls itself Bowling Green.
That is why the latest NCAA rankings, which place Bowling Green State University's hockey team No. 4 in the nation, may come as a shock to people. Even to people as nearby as Toledo, just 20 miles away, where the local paper, The Blade, virtually ignores the sport. This is football country. Basketball country. Wrestling country. Who wants to read about college hockey? No matter. Even if folks from the big city did get excited and decided to hop on the bandwagon, there would be nowhere to put them.
To those who follow the sport, Bowling Green's emergence to the fore along with such hockey powerhouses as Boston University and the University of Minnesota is anything but a shock. Two years ago the Falcons were fifth in the nation; last year they were third, becoming the first team from the Central Collegiate Hockey Association to qualify for the NCAA tournament. This season, after starting with a 3-3 record, Bowling Green went 23 games without a loss and was No. 1 in the country for a time. The Falcons finished the regular season 33-5-2, outscoring their opponents by a staggering 247-97. The five losses—two in overtime—were by a total of six goals.
Last weekend, in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, the Falcons thumped Lake Superior State 12-2 and 6-1. This weekend they will seek their third successive conference title in a two-game, total-goals series against Ohio State. Bowling Green is 3-1 against the Buckeyes this season.
Should the Falcons retain the CCHA title, they will meet the second-place finisher in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs for the right to go to Detroit for the NCAA tournament March 22-24. No Bowling Green team has ever won an NCAA championship. Its 1972 indoor track team, led, by Dave Wottle, finished second in the NCAAs, and there was a small-college football champion years ago, but a genuine NCAA Division I title has never been won. That may soon change.
"Until we lost two of our defensemen, Pete Sikorski and Mike Cotter, to injuries, I think we were the team to beat," says Coach Ron Mason, the man who has generated all this misplaced interest in hockey. "We still have a great outside shot at it. We have a better than average skating team and don't give up many cheap goals. We have a good power play and good penalty killing. Ken Morrow's probably the best defenseman in the country, and I doubt there's a line anywhere much better than our No. 1 line of John Markell, George McPhee and Mark Wells. We have a good blend."
Mason, who played his hockey at St. Lawrence, is low-keyed and tends toward understatement. He serves as a skating instructor for many NHL players during the summer, so it's little wonder that he has a superb skating team. His power play scored better than 30% of the time this season, while his penalty killers allowed opponents only 12% success.
Morrow, a mobile 6'4", 210-pound All-America from Flint, Mich., is an excellent pro prospect, while the Markell-Wells-McPhee line ranks among the highest scoring ever to play in Division I. They combined for 94 goals and 148 assists this season.
"My system is simple," says the mustachioed Mason, whose prematurely graying hair is parted in the middle and comes down to his shoulders—nothing around here looks as it should in hockey. "Each player has to be unselfish. We're not a dump-and-run team; we make them take the puck away from us. And we believe that stopping goals is easier than scoring them. We scored a lot of goals this weekend against Lake Superior, but to me the key was that they scored only three in the two games. That's how you win."
But Mason's system on the ice is not as masterful as his system for conning players from the hotbeds of Ontario and Michigan to come down and play in Ohio. The Bowling Green program, now in its 10th year, has no tradition behind it, and the Ice Arena has dingy cinder-block walls and a low tin roof. "Look at this place. It's a dump, really," says Tom Jeffire, owner of Dino's Pizza Pub on Wooster Street—the team's watering hole—and one of the few knowledgeable hockey fans in town, having worked for five years at the Detroit Olympia. "If Mason was selling Notre Dame, he'd never lose."
Mason disagrees. "The campus is neat and tidy," he says. "That appeals to recruits. They're not overwhelmed like they are at Notre Dame and Michigan. I can stand them in one spot and point out the dormitories, the rink, the football field, the golf course, the rec center. Neat and tidy."
That one spot is not the top of a hill, either. There certainly aren't any trees to block the view—part of the campus was a cornfield 15 years back—but the truth is, Michigan and Ontario are pretty flat, too. It reminds players of home. "People back in Flint still say, 'Bowling what?' " says Morrow, a fourth-round draft choice of the N.Y. Islanders in 1976. "But I liked the idea of being able to walk from one end of the campus to the other in a few minutes."
Another thing Morrow likes about the town is the fact that when he was apprehended after running a stop sign recently, the officer let him off in return for an autograph for his nephew.
"This place has kept a friendly, small-school atmosphere despite having 16,000 students," says Athletic Director Jim Lessig. "Even the name connotes a small town—Bowling Green."
Of the school's three revenue-producing sports, hockey will show the biggest profit this year. "Winning is what sells the sport," says Lessig. "When they built the rink 10 years ago, people around here thought, 'My God, what a white elephant.' Now we're probably going to add a thousand more seats. I'm a little worried about that, though, because the greatest promotion in sports is to put up that SOLD OUT sign."
In all likelihood they could add 3,000 more seats to the 3,500 in the Ice Arena and still sell out the league finals against Ohio State, which qualified by beating Northern Michigan in the fourth overtime last Saturday night. "People will forget about their trips to Florida for this one," says winger Markell, who is Bowling Green's alltime leading scorer. "For people that don't know anything about hockey, they sure support you." Says Lessig, "Hockey fans are a little like skiers. Once they start, they get addicted."
One might wonder what they are addicted to. Led by a costumed, skating Falcon by the name of Freddie, and the redoubtable Bleacher Creatures, who wear ghoulish rubber masks, Bowling Green fans cheer with an orchestration that is often more disciplined and applauded than the hockey. When the public-address system announces that an opponent is "back at full strength," the stadium erupts with "That's debatable!" in laudable unison. On Friday, when the Lake Superior team was being introduced, the entire Section A—all 500 strong—slipped newspapers from under their seats and began reading, commuter-style. But lest you think that the friendly, homey atmosphere of the town is being eroded by its love affair with hockey, let it be known that Section A has never so much as thrown an eel onto the ice.
No, it's going to be a while before college hockey drags the town of Bowling Green over the deep end. And if the Falcons should happen to go all the way this year, Bowling Green will become the first college hockey team to win 40 games in a season.
Forty. A neat and tidy number.