12/09/2012 10:48 AM
Undrafted due to his size, former Ferris State Bulldog Chad Billins wants to prove that the Griffins made a wise choice when they signed the stray defenseman to a one-year contract.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
The English Bulldog, a breed symbolic of strength, tenacity, stubborn determination and limitless loyalty, is the official mascot of no less than 39 American universities.
For last year’s Ferris State University hockey team, there could have been no better mascot.
Griffins rookie Chad Billins was a member of the 2011-12 squad that surprised the collegiate hockey world by making it all the way to the championship game of the Frozen Four, hockey’s answer to basketball’s Final Four.
Nobody expected the Bulldogs to go that far. In fact, many of the Ferris State players themselves might not have believed it at the beginning of the season.
“But as the season progressed, I felt like we had a very good team, and I mean TEAM,” said Billins, who was a co-captain and the school’s top scoring defenseman.
“People often take the word ‘team’ lightly, but we really were a team. We had great role players, guys who did their job and were determined to play for each other. We were very close and we’d do anything for each other.
“It made it that much more special when we went as far as we did.”
For Billins, Ferris State was the perfect place to pursue a future in hockey.
A product of the thumb area of Michigan, Billins grew up in Marysville, a small town south of Port Huron. His youth was spent playing in the Port Huron Minor Hockey Association.
His parents, Jason and Teri, took their support of their three boys’ interest in hockey to an unusual level.
“At one point all three boys were playing travel hockey, our dad was playing in a men’s league and our mom even played,” Billins recalled. “The family support has been unbelievable. It seems like it was just yesterday when they were taking us to the rink and to tournaments. Those are great memories.”
Billins’ father coached the boys when they were younger but bowed out as his sons got older. “But he’s still like a coach to me,” Billins said. “He’s still there to talk hockey, even today.”
Eventually Billins left home to play hockey at a higher level. As a teenager, he played in Alpena, where he roomed with Evan West, another defenseman from the Port Huron area.
“I think it was probably hardest on my mom, seeing me leave at the relatively young age of 17,” he said. “There was an adjustment period, but it helped that I had a roommate and close friend there. I was ready to take the necessary steps to advance my hockey career.”
His next move was to go to Iowa, where he played for the Waterloo Black Hawks in the USHL.
“When I told people I was playing hockey in Iowa, they were surprised. It was like, ‘Whoa, what are you doing out there?’ But it was the USHL, which was another step up. I thought it was necessary to play at that level to try to make the jump to college.”
Billins made his first visit to Ferris State – located in Big Rapids, about an hour’s drive north of Grand Rapids – while playing in Alpena. “Right away, I loved the campus, the coaching staff and the whole university atmosphere there,” he said. “It just felt like a great fit.”
He appreciated the fact that hockey is the only Division I sport at Ferris, which meant that it was given No. 1 status at the school.
“My years at Ferris flew by,” Billins said. “It was a great experience because the coaching staff made it fun to come to the rink, and we had a pretty tight group. When you spend four years with the same guys, you end up making some of your best friendships.”
His closest friend was Bulldogs netminder Taylor Nelson, with whom he roomed all four years at Ferris. Although goalies are typically considered a unique breed, Billins said his roomie was pretty normal.
Billins and Nelson anchored Ferris State’s defense, which earned a reputation for doing whatever it took to stop shots from going into the net. “I think we had almost 450 blocked shots as a team,” he said.
The Bulldogs began the year picked to finish ninth in the CCHA. By mid-February, the team had reached No. 1 in all three major Division I hockey polls.
Ferris State defied the odds to reach the Frozen Four championship game. While its opponent in the Frozen Four final, Boston College, had nine NHL draft picks on its roster, Ferris State had none.
Its anonymity was underscored by the fact that all game notes included Michigan in parentheses behind the school’s name, since most people had no idea where the school was even located.
“Last year’s success was not only exciting, but a pretty surreal experience,” Billins said. “It was great for the university and for all of the alumni who have helped build the program over the years. It felt very special to be honoring all of those players who came before us. We felt like we put Ferris on the map.”
Losing to Boston College by a 4-1 margin was hard to swallow, but Billins said the game was much closer than the score suggests. “We had our chances, and it honestly could have gone either way,” he said. “Most of the game, we were right there with them.”
“It was disappointing at the time, but what an experience it was,” he said. “It’s something that none of us will ever forget.”
Last March, Billins was tabbed as the CCHA Scholar-Athlete of the Year, a tribute which he modestly suggests could have gone to some of his teammates. Nevertheless, the marketing major with the 3.82 GPA was honored to receive the award.
“It was awesome to be able to represent the university in that capacity,” he said.
Billins signed an amateur tryout contract with the Griffins last spring but never saw any action. He was excited when the team offered him a one-year pro contract this past summer.
“Being from Michigan, I grew up watching the Red Wings, so I was excited to sign with the organization,” he said. “It added a lot of extra excitement to my workouts because I knew it was going to take a lot of hard work to earn a spot up here with the Griffins.”
Billins got off to a great start, recording an AHL-leading 14 assists in his first 14 games, more than he recorded in any of his first three seasons at Ferris State. “Our power play is clicking and guys are starting to jell, so the points are just happening,” he said.
Although he professes not to think about it, he admits that being bypassed in the NHL Entry Draft is something that provides a little extra motivation.
“It’s not something you think about every day, but it is something that some players have to overcome,” Billins said. “You know you have to work that much harder to try to make an impression.”
Billins points to Brian Rafalski, an undersized defenseman who won two Stanley Cups with the New Jersey Devils and another with the Red Wings, as the type of player he would love to emulate.
He thinks about the advice of his parents: “Just keep your mind on what you want to accomplish. If you work hard and stay focused, you’ll have that advantage when you get your opportunity.”
Billins intends to make the most of his chance.
"I’m just trying to take it one day at a time,” he said. “This is a dream come true. To be a hockey player and be paid to come to the rink every day – honestly it couldn’t get any better than that.”