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Small schools take spotlight at Frozen Four

In this photo taken Saturday, March 24, 2012 and provided by FSU Photo Services, Ferris State players celebrate after their 2-1 win over Cornell in an NCAA college hockey tournament Midwest Regional final in Green Bay, Wis. Ferris State is heading to its first Frozen Four, joining fellow newcomer Union, along with Minnesota and Boston College next week.

Scott N. Whitney/AP

The Frozen Four has gone to the dogs this year.

It's the underdogs from Ferris State and Union College playing in Thursday's first semi-final game at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Then it's the big dogs – Boston College and the University of Minnesota – going at it in the second game.

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And, come Saturday night's NCAA Division I championship game, there will be a top dog.

While Minnesota features no Canadians and Boston College has three from British Columbia (defencemen Mark Begert and Isaac MacLeod and forward Destry Straight), the two surprise teams are stocked with players from the country.

Ferris State has eight Canadians, including star goalie Taylor Nelson and leading scorer Jordie Johnston, both from Saskatchewan.

Union College has 13 players from five provinces. Six of Union's top seven scorers are Canadians, led by forward Jeremy Welsh (27 goals, 16 assists) of Bayfield, Ont.

Rounding out the top point men for the Flying Dutchmen are Kelly Zajac (8 goals, 34 assists) of Winnipeg; Daniel Carr (19 goals, 20 assists) of Sherwood Park, Alta.; Josh Jooris (8 goals, 20 assists) of Burlington, Ont.; and East Paul, Man., brothers Kyle Bodie (6 goals, 24 assists), and Mat Bodie (8 goals, 21 assists).

"There has never been a game like this in the Frozen Four," said Neil Koepke, who has covered 34 of the past 35 tournaments for the Ann Arbor News and Lansing State Journal in Michigan. "And it's great for the game. It would never happen in football with two schools this small in a national semi-final. But it can happen in hockey if you find the right players for your system.

"Ferris has uncovered diamonds in the rough, many from Saskatchewan, to put together a team that has beaten Michigan State and Ohio State."

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Nelson, who has a 2.1 goals-against average and .923 save percentage, played for Humboldt and is from Regina.

Johnston, a forward from Rosetown, leads Ferris with 20 goals and 36 points.

They followed another Saskatchewan product, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Chris Kunitz, to Big Rapids.

Johnston said an aggressive coaching staff, which includes associate head coach Drew Famulak of Saskatchewan, made him feel "welcome and wanted" on his visit. He liked the "homey" aspects of the town and closeness of the team, too.

"And I kind of also liked the underdog kind of feel of the school," Johnston added.

Nelson said having Johnston, Mike Trebish and Justin Menke – all from his native province – at Ferris opened the doors.

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Union relies almost completely on Canadians to score.

Welsh, an undrafted shooter, will have his pick of NHL teams after this weekend. He played for the Oakville Blades of the Ontario Junior Hockey League.

"There's people who like to score goals and the people who love to score goals," said Flying Dutchmen coach Rick Bennett. "And I think he really loves to score goals by the way he shoots it. He puts everything he has into those shots, and he's actually ... killing our stick budget.

"He's been a force. He's a huge reason why we're here. I'm not going to say he's the only reason. But he's a big reason."

Ferris and Union are vying for a chance to slay a giant.

"No matter what happens Thursday night," said Gary Thorne, who will call the game on ESPNU with Barry Melrose, "we are going to have a David-Goliath matchup. That's guaranteed. And in sports, that is always interesting. You are waiting for the unusual as a fan, and this game will be that."

The Golden Gophers have been to 19 Frozen Fours and won it all five times.

The Eagles have played in 23 Frozen Fours with four NCAA championships.

This is the first time either Ferris State or Union College has advanced to the sport's Holy Grail game. Hockey fans will be scratching their heads when reading about the matchup between a team from Big Rapids, Mich., and Schenectady, N.Y.

Ferris State's Bob Daniels, on Wednesday chosen the winner of the Spencer Penrose Award as the top Division I coach, said retired dean of the school of business Dick Hansen put the situation into perspective for him.

"He had an interesting take on small school versus big school," Daniels said. "He said, 'Say you end up running into a Minnesota in the finals.'" Daniels said Hansen used a 40,000 enrolment figure as an example. Minnesota, with more than 52,000 students, is the nation's fourth-largest school.

Hansen told him, "The nice thing is you're only playing 20 of their student-athletes. You don't have to play all 40,000."

Daniels continued, "So, size of school I don't think makes much of a difference."

Ferris lists its enrolment at 14,560, while Union has just 2,200.

These schools are big only in their dreams.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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