Bemidji State Adjusts to New WCHA
Looks Forward to Being Part of North Star Cup
by Ryan Evans/CHN Reporter
This season has been one of transition for college hockey, with re-aligned and new conferences shifting the sport’s landscape. Few teams understand that better than Bemidji State, which is adjusting to life in the new WCHA as one of the conference’s four holdovers from last year.
As a program, Bemidji has been here before. It was only three seasons ago that the Beavers made the move from College Hockey America to the WCHA, which was made necessary when the CHA’s teams either folded or moved on to greener pastures, leaving it with just four members.
Bemidji (8-8-4 WCHA, 8-13-7 overall) finds itself in a similar situation now having watched the WCHA change around it last year — eight teams left for either the Big Ten or NCHC, replaced by six new ones. However, the Beavers’ players say the transition has suited them well; they not only believe their own move to the WCHA in 2010-11 brought a higher level of talent to the program, but that the style of play the six new schools brought with them better fits their abilities.
“It has definitely been a change from the run and gun systems that we played against last year, but I think we fit in pretty well in the new WCHA,” junior forward Danny Mattson said. “It’s more of a defensive game in the conference now. I think it’s more about systems now, whereas it was a run up the ice track meet in the old WCHA.”
“We’ve always taken pride in our defense and Coach (Tom) Serratore has always stressed that to us,” Mattson added. “It has always been important to us, so it hasn’t been too much of an adjustment for us.”
If there is one thing the players miss most, though, about the old WCHA, it’s the opportunity to play against schools like Minnesota, North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth on a regular basis, but have found that the WCHA offers plenty of opportunities for new rivalries to form.
The Beavers currently sit in a three-way tie for fifth place in the conference with 20 points, just one point behind fourth place Alaska-Anchorage and three points behind third place Bowling Green, yet only one point ahead of eighth place Northern Michigan.
“If you look at the standings right now, Ferris and Mankato are doing pretty well up top, but the next six teams are in a logjam,” BSU sophomore defenseman Graeme McCormack said. “It’s going to be a tight conference.”
But, the fire of Bemidji State’s old rivalries with their former WCHA conference mates still burns, especially among its fan base. The Beavers’ two homes games against Minnesota and one against North Dakota earlier this season all drew sellout crowds to the Sanford Center and the players miss playing in those high energy atmospheres against the top level of talent those teams bring.
“You have to elevate your play every time you go play teams like that,” McCormack said.
Helping to keep the flames of those rivalries going is the North Star College Cup, Minnesota’s version of Boston’s fabled Beanpot, which was organized last season when the state’s five teams – Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State, St. Cloud State and Bemidji – went their separate ways as a result of conference re-alignment. The goal of the annual tournament is to maintain the historic in-state rivalries now that the five programs are in three different conferences.
Minnesota won the inaugural cup in a shootout over Duluth on Jan. 25 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The Gophers will serve as the event’s permanent host with three of the other four teams participating on a rotating basis, meaning one school sits out each year. For the inaugural tournament, it was Bemidji State that drew the short straw.
“It was a little disappointing but I guess that is just the way the ball bounces,” Mattson said of having to sit out this season’s tournament. “There’s nothing you can do it about it, so you just wait your turn and have a good tournament the next year.”
“You try not to read into it or anything,” McCormack added. “It sucked a bit to get the short end of the stick and have to sit out the first one, but at the same time we can go into it next year and try to prove something.”
The Beavers will be raring to go when they get their first shot at the North Star Cup next season, fueled in part by having to sit out this year, but also by the chance to earn State of Hockey bragging rights.
“There are rivalries within Minnesota between all the schools that will make for a great tournament,” McCormack said. “You’re not playing those teams four times a year anymore, but it will be great to play one or two.”
For Mattson, a player who grew up in Minneapolis and played high school hockey at state powerhouse Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield, Minn., where he holds the school records for career goals and points, the opportunity to play in the tournament holds special significance.
“I’m excited to play the Minnesota teams,” Mattson said. “There’s rivalry there, especially when you grew up with a lot of the kids you’re playing against. It’s going to be a lot of fun to play in front of a lot of family and friends back in the Twin Cities in that great atmosphere.”
McCormack agrees that the event will make for a special playing experience and envisions the North Star Cup growing into one of the state’s preeminent events.
“It can be our state tournament,” he said. “The high school state tournament is a huge draw in Minnesota and I think (the North Star Cup) can be the same thing for college hockey players. It can be a huge deal and a staple of Minnesota hockey.”