Bemidji State Playing For Something More
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
The last few weeks for Bemidji State have been like a bountiful oasis in a desert of uncertainty.
The coaches and players are reveling this week in the program's amazing run to its first Division I Frozen Four. And well it should. It magically coincided with the groundbreaking ceremony last Friday for Bemidji's new ice arena, scheduled to open in the fall of 2010.
But backing up to view the Big Picture, this all has occurred during a season when Bemidji State's future is uncertain. And, with the demise of its conference just around the corner, and no current place to go, the future remains that way for the Beavers, despite its storied history.
You can't help but wonder if there has been extra motivation, as the Beavers play not only for their own season but for the honor of the program as a whole, and to showcase itself for the WCHA, which currently sits on an application for membership from BSU.
"We don't talk about these things in the locker room," BSU coach Tom Serratore said. "It's one of those situations where we don't need to talk to the players about it. They read about it enough in the papers and on the Internet. What that does is, it takes away from the task at hand. I tell them to worry about what goes on on the ice, I'll worry about off the ice.
"I hope we're not looking at that. It's no motivation for us. The best motivation for us is playing our best hockey."
There's no denying, however, the potential importance of this run. Will this turn enough heads in the WCHA to encourage more members to embrace the idea of an 11-team league? Even last week's Regional final opponent, Cornell coach Mike Schafer, acknowledged this in the immediate aftermath of his team's disappointing loss.
"Look at the skyline of college hockey right now, it's not any secret when you see teams (facing) tough economic times," Schafer said. "Bemidji State legitimizes that some people made the right decision (to keep hockey). Hockey is such a great game. We're all facing tough economic times. It's a big win for some of these people. ... If you do things right, do things the good way, it's a tremendous opportunity. It's a great win for them and their league."
Certainly, Serratore doesn't deny that.
"It's good for the game, because everyone out there who plays college hockey realizes it could be them some day," he said.
"This is what college hockey is about, it's what sports is about. We're not a "BCS" school. But college hockey is predominantly a bunch of mid-major institutions. And there's a small margin for error and there's a lot of parity. ... I don't want to recite Rocky Balboa, 1976, 'We're the land of opportunity,' but you know what? This is American, and that's what's great about it. This is sports. It's special.
"So what does it mean to our program? I don't know, because our program has had a lot of success, but it's great for the game."
If it doesn't help with the WCHA powers that be, it has certainly helped at least put Bemidji on the map nationally. The Beavers are more like Pilgrims, heading to D.C. for the national semifinal while spreading the message of their own existence.
"It's good exposure. It gives our community and university a little notoriety," Serratore said. "And any time you have that, I don't think you can put a price tag on that. It's a special time for us, and we try to let as many people know about Bemidji State as possible. And being on this stage will allow us to do that."
But what Serratore, a BSU grad, is quick to point out, is that this program has had a lot of success in the past — just at other NCAA levels. Bob Peters is one of the all-time winningest coaches in NCAA history, earning Division II, Division III and NAIA championships, before leading the team to D-I.
Moreso than the uncertainty of the program's future, it's the success of the past, no matter what level, that drives the current team.
"Unless you've ever worn a Beaver jersey or been in a Beaver locker room, it's hard to understand or fathom what we're talking about," Serratore said. "This program has won 942 games, 20 conference championships, 70 percent of its games. There's only been one or two classes that went through our program and not had a championship. We talk about how special it is to be in this program. The media looks at it like we're Cinderalla. I'm not saying it wasn't a tough road, we knew that. But we also believed in ourselves."
So forget that next season is the last of College Hockey America. Forget that prospects of landing in a new league in 2010 are iffy. Forget that, even if accepted in the WCHA, the Beavers become a small fish in a big pond, and it makes reaching the NCAAs that much harder.
Right now, this week, Bemidji State is being mentioned in the same breath as Boston University, the Frozen Four, and the chance for a Division I national championship. And has a new rink being built to boot.
"It's a great week and a great time for Beaver hockey," Serratore said. "There's been a lot of great times. But Coach Peters stopped by my office, and he said this is the best time ever for Beaver hockey. And that's from a guy who's lived 90 percent of the most exciting times."