By Kyle Kujawa -
The wait was worth it for Chad Billins.
For every top prospect and first-round pick who attends a big-name school and works their way to the professional ranks, there’s a player like Billins – players who weren’t drafted and attended lesser-known schools, but ones who make an impact just the same.
But after going undrafted, spending a year in the USHL and four more in the CCHA, Billins didn’t jump at the first offer that came to him.
“My agent was talking to a few teams,” said Billins, a native of Marysville, Mich. “It was a weird summer with all the lockout talk, so we had to wait.”
The wait ended in July, when he signed a one-year contract with Grand Rapids. Once he found an opportunity with the Griffins, he had to start proving himself. Billins was one of many newcomers on the team’s blueline, but he wasn’t sure where he would slot into the lineup. Joining a group of mostly NHL draft picks and veterans, he thought there was a chance he might start his pro career in Toledo.
“I knew I was going to have to work every day and earn a spot every day,” he said. “I didn’t know if I would be here or down in Toledo, so I had to work extra hard in the summer to get in shape and be ready.”
But Toledo was never a consideration. Billins’ puck-moving ability and above-average decision making not only earned him a spot on the opening night roster, but also a role quarterbacking the top power play unit. Playing with the likes of Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Smith, Billins led the league in assists following his first 16 professional contests, after recording 16 points (1-15—16).
While the coaches were pleased with his play on one of the AHL’s top power play units, Billins was approaching double-digit negative figures in the plus-minus category – not necessarily indicative of his defensive ability, but a concern nonetheless.
“It did start to get crazy,” said Billins. “After the points died down, I really had to focus on the defensive game. Our coaches have been working with me to try to take one shift at a time and be stronger in the defensive zone.”
Billins was paired with Brennan Evans, the team’s resident stay-at-home defenseman and penalty killing specialist. He posted a plus-11 rating over the next month and half, pulling himself out of the negatives and closer to the team leaders in that category.
“It was nice to work with Evans,” he said. “We knew we had to go out every shift and get the job done.”
While his point-per-game pace slowed down, Billins has been counted on in all situations. His impact was recently recognized by the league, as he was one of three Griffins (along with Gustav Nyquist and Petr Mrazek) selected to the 2013 AHL All-Star Classic. Billins
The prestigious honor is not the only one for Billins over the past 12 months. He was a standout on the Ferris State Bulldogs blueline as a senior in 2011-12, winning the CCHA’s Scholar Athlete of the Year award, earning a spot on the All-CCHA First Team and receiving nominations for the CCHA’s RBC Player of the Year and Best Offensive Defenseman awards.
“It meant a lot to be able to represent Ferris,” said Billins. “But Scholar Athlete of the Year, that could have gone to anyone on the team really. Coach [Bob Daniels] had a really good philosophy on going to school first and focusing at the rink after.
“It was special to win those awards, but it was more special to be able to have the Ferris name attached to it.”
Helping to put Ferris on the map is an achievement that won’t soon leave Billins’ mind – he co-captained the Bulldogs in a run to the 2012 NCAA National Championship game. The team fell a little bit short in the final game against Boston College, but it capped off a run of strong seasons for an ever-improving program.
“What an experience to go that far, with a smaller school,” said Billins, who notes that the National Championship game’s lineup sheets had to include “Michigan” in parentheses next to the team’s name. “It was such an honor to represent all the alumni and the players who helped bring the program to what it is today.”
Now sitting about a 35 minute drive down US-131 from his familiar Ferris State campus, Billins’ hockey journey has taken him far – although not that far in a geography sense. After developing with the Flags in the Port Huron Minor Hockey Association, he spent a year in Alpena, playing for the NAHL’s IceDiggers. He spent just one season outside the state (with the USHL’s Waterloo Black Hawks in 2007-08) before making his college commitment.
With a rookie all-star appearance and full college resume under his belt, it seems like the next logical step for the fast-rising rookie is a shot in the NHL.
“It’s in my head, but I focus on what’s going on here,” he said. “I can’t let that affect anything. I think about it, but I’m still with the Griffins. We’re having a good year, and we want to continue that success.”