Special Report: Bemidji State's Future
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Last week, Bemidji State came to agreement with the WCHA on a scheduling arrangement. But what does it really mean?
Well, it doesn't mean the CHA is "saved," nor does it mean Bemidji State is completely in the clear. But it is some kind of step and assurance for Bemidji State, that if the CHA folds as expected after this season, the Beavers program will have teams to play.
Of course, the deal is contingent upon the Regional Events Center being built in Bemidji. So the deal doesn't kick in until 2010-11, when that arena, planned to be built along Lake Bemidji, would be completed.
As it stands, however, the Beavers already play 10 or so games each year against WCHA teams, so it isn't that big a change. It just creates assurances, and gets them some home games out of the deal.
Clearly, it's no panacea. Bemidji State will be facing pressures once the CHA goes away.
"For the longevity, you have to have a reason to play for — qualifying for the NCAAs," BSU athletic director Rick Goeb said. "If you can't qualify for the NCAAs and don't have a set schedule, you're killing yourself. So you really need to be in a league, I don't care what school it is.
"I honestly think things are going to work out so we don't have to do that.'
The WCHA was happy to oblige, to a point.
"(BSU coach) Tom Serratore was in the league along time before heading up there. So a lot of it is built on the relationship with Tom," said WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod. "Hopefully this goes a little beyond that. ... It does formalize things a little bit more. With Bemidji, we wanted to be as positive as we possibly could to encourage them to get this Regional Events Center up there. So hopefully it will be a very public way of trying to support those efforts."
Of course, the league's moratorium on new membership remains.
"In the presentation, Bemidji State president John Quistgaard — it might have been his first sentence, he said, 'Don't worry, I'm not going to mention the 'M' word.' Membership. So that broke the ice. ... If they start to go down that path, it might backfire on them."
The CHA is expected to fold because it's no longer viable as a four-team league, as Goeb alludes to. It will become a four-team league at the end of the season when Wayne State's program disbands.
Attempts to find other teams to come into the league have failed.
However, CHA commissioner Bob Peters re-opened speculation about other programs coming in. In a radio interview in Bemidji this week, Peters said that the CHA is in "active negotiations" with Atlantic Hockey about bringing in teams, perhaps Mercyhurst and Canisius, to bring the league back to six teams.
This has been talked about before, and it makes sense on some level. Mercyhurst's girls team plays in the CHA. And the two schools are close to current CHA school Niagara.
But Mercyhurst athletic director Craig Barnett remains steadfast in saying his school is staying put.
"I still stand by — we'd like to be part of the solution, but it will need more than just Mercyhurst and Canisius," Barnett said. "With all these rumblings and rumors, I'd like it to be clear, that we are a proud member of Atlantic Hockey and we don't want to leave the AHA. We don't have any intention of leaving.
Goeb did allude, however, to something else possibly being in the works, though he didn't want to be specific.
"Anything is possible. There's a lot of options being discussed. And I do think college hockey will take care of college hockey," Goeb said. "There's not a lot of programs, and they all know each other quite well, the coaches do certainly, and it's a fraternity and they do want to take care of each other."
Said Barnett, "It sounds like the CHA as a whole or some of their members are in the process of making a proposal for absorption into Atlantic Hockey. I have no idea how Atlantic Hockey would react to that. I don't know if it's a total CHA proposal, or just some members. It's survival time for some of those programs."
Said McLeod, "I thought it was pretty much toast, but now ... it's rumbling beyond some coaches rhetoric. The ADs and even presidents are involved."
For Bemidji, everything hinges on that arena, which now stands in the hands of Minnesota's governor, who will decide in the spring whether to include it in his next budget.
"It will be a beautiful facility, on the short of Lake Bemidji," Goeb said. "It's a nice size, with 25 suites. Not all WCHA arenas have the amenities this would have."
So far, the city of Bemidji has passed a referendum that would fund the arena through a temporary increase in sales tax.
"We've received $3 million in planning money, and we've used that funding to go ahead and do all the planning, architects and everything else," Goeb said. "Now we have to make sure the governor puts us in the bonding request. We're asking for $25 million. And that's the main challenge right now, to make sure he puts us in the budget. Initially it wasn't.
"This whole process has not been easy. There's been challenges every step of the way. We've cleared each hurdle and we're confident we can do it again."
It has not been able to get into the WCHA as it really wants, but with a decent schedule in place, the program can stay viable until another conference idea comes along and the new arena is built.
"We have a schedule in place for next year already, it just happens to be without Wayne State," Goeb said. "It includes flexibility there. We're hoping there's changes. There's always things going on behind the scenes, and we're hopeful things will work out in the end.
"I don't think you can say any program is 100 percent secure. But I like our odds, I can tell you that. As far as I'm concerned, we're doing everything we're supposed to be doing. We're on a very good path right now."
Look for more roller coaster before we know for sure.
"There's a lot of behind the scenes discussions, and things taking place. We're optimistic something is going to happen," Goeb said.
"It's up and down. One minute you're riding high ... it's not easy. Honestly, it's all come together much more in the last month than it has before. We can see the light now."