Today begins the NCAA Frozen Four in Tampa, Florida. Leading up to this weekend's events, we're chatting with one player from each of the teams involved. For our final interview, it's Taylor Nelson of the Ferris State Bulldogs.
Like their opponents today in the NCAA semifinals [Union], Ferris State isn't a widely-known school like a Boston College or Minnesota. Playing in the CCHA with teams like Michigan, Michigan State and Miami University, it's easy to overlook the Bulldogs.
But this season, after finishing as a non-contender the past few years, Ferris State posted a 25-11-5 record, won the CCHA and qualified for the NCAA tournament for just the second time in school history. In the tournament, they edged both Denver and Cornell 2-1 to earn their first trip to the Frozen Four ever.
Fifth in the conference a year ago. Two wins away from a national title this season. How could anyone see that coming?
"That's the sport of hockey," said Bulldogs goaltender Taylor Nelson last Friday in a phone interview. "It's very unpredictable. That little puck can bounce anywhere. That's what makes the sport so great is that teams can create some upsets."
"We might not get the same respect from other programs just because we are a school not a lot of people have heard of, to be honest. But we're just going to keep going out there and put our best foot forward and hopefully we can become that Cinderella story."
Nelson is a big part of the Bulldogs' success. Working on his control over the off-season and keeping composed in the crease during those panic times in games, the 23-year old Saskatchewan native was 20-6-3 with a 1.98 goals against average and .923 save-percentage this season.
We spoke with Nelson last week about not being satisfied, making school history, his pre-game routine of eating Kit Kats, and Nickelback as one of the all-time great Canadian bands. Yes, it's true. Enjoy.
Q. Has it sunk in yet that you guys are playing in the Frozen Four?
NELSON: We're excited. We're talking a workman-like approach to it. We're having some good practices this week thus far. I really don't think the full-on excitement will start until we get on the plane on Tuesday.
With almost two weeks to sit after the overtime loss to Bowling Green [in the CCHA tournament quarterfinals], was there a mentality of pushing that loss out of your minds or did the team use it as a source of motivation heading into the tournament?
What I like most about this team is that whether something good happens or whether something bad happens this team's got a really quick memory. Things are put to the back, or just completely out of our minds, for that matter. When we were on our undefeated streak our motto was "we're not satisfied". That carried over into the playoffs, to this point we're not satisfied. But losing to Bowling Green, we had to completely get that out of our mindset and just focus in on hopefully, at that point in time, making the Regional and then pushing forward knowing that that series didn't define us as a team.
Did the low expectations from some pundits heading into the season drive this team or does that talk not even enter the room?
Ferris State, for as long as I've been here [Nelson is a senior], has always been tagged low in those media polls and in the nation to start the season. In the past three years I've been here we've had some pretty good hockey teams. At this point, I think it's almost water off a ducks back when we hear something like that. In the dressing room, we know that we're better than what people are giving to us. I guess you can say that's a little bit of fuel to the fire, in the regard that we want to come out and prove to some people wrong, but for the most part we're just playing for the guys in the dressing room and the school and the community.
The 2002-03 team was a special one for the program. Does what the team accomplished this season, being the first team to make the Frozen Four, only added motivation to finish out the season with two more wins?
Yep. And like I said before, the team motto now is "we're not satisfied". It is amazing and great for the school and great for the players that we were able to surpass what that '02-03 team had done, and by no means am I taking away from what that team had done because they paved the way for Ferris State as a hockey school. We're extremely happy that we were blessed with a chance to make the Regional and extremely happy that we're able to play with the Ferris State Bulldogs logo on our chest in the Frozen Four, but we're still not satisfied.
Is there a goalie or two that you try to model your game after?
That's a good question. I like a lot of goaltenders. And I enjoy watching NHL and all these guys play because they're so good at what they do. You look at a guy like Carey Price who never looks like he's panicked. He doesn't look like he's even working. And I think that's what I try and model my game after: that smooth, no panic game. I like Ryan Miller. How can you not like a guy like that who competes hard? I really like the way he plays the game. Marc-Andre Fleury with his athleticism. Boy, is he great and fun to watch. And his foot speed is so tremendous and he's able to get from Point A to Point B in a hurry and in control.
That no panic style seemed to really help you in the two tournament games which were very tight.
Yeah. The no panic thing is key. You don't want to lose control in the crease and put yourself out of the net. You always want to stay calm and give yourself a chance at that next puck or that next rebound or that backdoor pass. That no panic thing really helped in those games.
Every goalie is going to say that they're normal, but are there any pre-game routines or superstitions you have that your teammates find odd?
I'd like to think I'm pretty normal. And I hope the guys say that too. I don't think there's one superstition that is strange to others. I enjoy a Kit Kat before a game and that's about the gist of my superstitions. There's routine, and you can talk to anyone in the room, they have their own routine before a game, and I guess some people think that's superstitious, but that's just us being creatures of habit.
How did the Kit Kat routine start?
It happened when I was playing junior hockey in Saskatchewan for the Humboldt Broncos. It happened my rookie year. I think what it was was I had my pre-game meal too early and I came to the rink and it was just before warmups and I had got hungry. I remember giving money to our trainer to run up and grab me something to go eat and he grabbed me a Kit Kat. Ever since then I've had one before every game playing or not playing.
So do you stock up every week on Kit Kats?
I actually buy it Friday morning for both games [Friday and Saturday].
Whose idea was it to use the Scissor Sisters "I Don't Feel Like Dancing" as the postgame song?
[Laughs] That's a great song. It's pretty upbeat and guys can sing to it. I think that's what makes it great. Me and Matt Kirzinger played in Humboldt together for a couple season and we were able to win a national championship there for the Broncos and we listened to it a little bit there when it first came out. This year, Matt put it on the playlist after one of our games. It actually may have been at our team's weekend getaway he put it on and guys were like, "Wow, this should be our win song" and it just blew up from there. I would give that credit to Matt Kirzinger, he's always got an ear for this type of thing. He's still one of the very few guys that makes CDs. He always calls them "Zinger's Moving Beats". He's got different editions, so guys love when he comes out with a new edition.
So no one else has control of the locker room stereo?
A lot of guys like to listen to their iPods. Before warmups is the only time we really listen to music together, so when everyone is off doing their own thing it might only be a select few guys in the dressing room and that's when Matt Kirzinger puts on his "Zinger's Moving Beats" and that'll consist of one of the all-time greatest Canadian bands, in my opinion, in Nickelback. I know I'll get a lot of grief for that. Me and Matt Kirzinger and a lot of the Canadians, we love Nickelback, I mean, come on, you got to put that on. But he's got a lot of old classic rock and AC/DC and stuff like that that he puts on there and listens to. But as soon as everyone comes into the dressing room to get dressed that's when Chad Billins and Travis Ouellette's iPods go on. So Zinger gets a little bit of glory, then those guys take over.
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy