OXFORD, Ohio - With an unlikely size and an improbable location, Miami University is sitting on top of the college hockey world at 11-1 and ranked No. 1 in the polls.
Propelling the RedHawks to the ranks of the hockey elite are 18 returning lettermen, a recruiting system that targets certain types of players, a new arena on a picture-postcard campus that serves as a recruiting magnet, and a unifying team-as-family culture known as "the Brotherhood."
The school is better known for a football program that has produced such stars as Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and coaches Paul Brown and Woody Hayes. It's one of the southernmost of the 59 Division I college hockey teams. And at 15,000 students it's dwarfed by Central Collegiate Hockey Association competitors such as Michigan (41,000 enrollment), Michigan State (46,000) and Ohio State (52,000).
Miami coach Enrico (Rico) Blasi dismisses talk that southwest Ohio is an unlikely place for hockey to thrive.
"Someone forgot to tell us that. We've never, ever felt that way," said Blasi, a native of Weston, Ont. "We knew that if we could establish our culture and recruit the right people, we felt like we could compete with anybody."
Miami's recent success reflects the ability of smaller schools to compete with the larger hockey powerhouses. Schools such as Colorado College, Clarkson University and Niagara - all with enrolments of 3,000 and fewer - fight their way into the top 20.
Mike Eidelbes, an editor for insidecollegehockey.com, said there used to be eight or so hockey powers, but that about a dozen schools now contend for the national title.
Experts say smaller schools seem to be landing quality players who would rather get more playing time than sit on the bench for the hockey heavyweights.
In addition, the pool of recruits is spreading southward - to Florida, Texas and Arizona, for example - as youth hockey programs grow.
And colleges are becoming more attractive to the best hockey players, who feel the experience will enable them to jump directly into the pros without having to play in the minor leagues. Seven current Miami players have been drafted by NHL teams.
Eidelbes said college players appeal to the NHL because they tend to be older than minor league players and are accustomed to a high level of competition.
"They'll play physical hockey," he said of Miami, which has had hockey for 30 years. "They're not afraid to go out and make life miserable for the other team."
Blasi, who played hockey at Miami, is in his ninth year as coach of the program. In 2005-06, he led the RedHawks to a 26-9-4 record and the CCHA Championship and was named national coach of the year.
Miami appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 2003-04 and 2005-06 and was ranked No. 1 for a week in early 2006. This season, the RedHawks had the best start in school history, going 8-0 before falling to Notre Dame on Nov. 9.
"We're just seeing the tip of the iceberg in what this could potentially become," said Brad Bates, Miami's athletic director.
The Miami coaches have become good at identifying recruits that will fit into the program: a good player with academic skills and strong character.
"We will not sacrifice those things just for talent," Blasi said. "We've had opportunities where we've let some talent go because we didn't feel that that person fit our style."
Unlike at some of the bigger schools, recruits join a team that enjoys consistency because many players at Miami - as at other small schools - elect to stay rather than leave early to turn pro.
Woven into Miami's program is "the Brotherhood," players and coaches who have agreed to strive for a culture of excellence, selflessness and sacrifice that glues the team together. Many players share housing, and the team socializes as a group.
"Every single player has bought into the Brotherhood," said senior forward Ryan Jones, a native of Chatham, Ont.
Other Canadians on the team include Toronto forward Justin Vaive, the son of fomer NHLer Rick, and forward Alexandre Lacombe of Orleans, Ont.
Asked what makes this year's squad special, goalie Jeff Zatkoff, a junior from Chesterfield, Mich., said: "We have that certain chemistry you see in championship teams."
Those who follow college hockey say Miami has great depth, with a good mix of experience and youth.
"Miami has just done a really good job, from top to bottom, of maximizing what they have and leaning on the hard work of some great coaches," said Adam Wodon, publisher of collegehockeynews.com. "The coaches and the new arena have attracted better players, and success builds on success."
The team is playing its second season in the US$34-million Goggin Ice Center, which has two NHL-sized ice sheets. Miami officials took their architects on a tour of hockey arenas around North America before settling on a design.
The locker-room is modelled after that of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Coaches have a sophisticated video room to review games and make adjustments, even between periods.
Students often line up outside the arena five hours before a game to get the best seats in Ricoville, a student section behind one of the nets.
Brian Grigsby, a 22-year-old Miami student from Chillicothe, knew nothing about hockey when he enrolled at Miami. Now he says he's hooked.
"Once the game starts, it's an absolute madhouse," he said.
The new arena combined with the campus setting has become a beacon for recruits, who are dazzled by the neo-Georgian red brick buildings, majestic trees, nature paths and a town flush with restaurants, bookstores and shops that cater to the students.
Jones said the campus was one reason he chose to attend Miami.
"I just came down for one visit and I committed on the way home," he said.