Bemidji State hockey program still on the rise, as weekend victory over U of M shows

In northern Minnesota, west of the Iron Range and south of Warroad, R.H. “Bob” Peters is hockey royalty. 

Peters coached the Bemidji State men’s hockey team from 1966 to 2001, winning 13 national titles as the Beavers program moved up from the NAIA all the way to NCAA Division I. Counting a stint at North Dakota, Peters is the only coach in collegiate history to reach the national semifinals in all four divisions.  

After Peters turned the program over to Tom Serratore, one of his former players, the Beavers continued to rise. Earlier this year, within a three-month span, the Beavers qualified for their first Division I Frozen Four and were accepted into the Western Collegiate Hockey Association for the 2010-11 season. That fulfilled two big items on Peters’ personal wish list.  A third happens next fall, when the Beavers are scheduled to move into a new arena near the shore of Lake Bemidji.

Peters made the trip down to Minneapolis over the weekend to see the Beavers play the University of Minnesota, a non-conference series at Mariucci Arena that was big for what it represented. The Gophers aren’t the state’s premier program any longer; going into the weekend, they weren’t even ranked. But the U name still carries historic value, and the seventh-ranked Beavers were 0-6 against the Gophers, though they last played in 2004.

Bemidji looked outclassed in a 4-1 loss on Saturday night, the Beavers’ first after a 7-0-1 start. But Sunday the Beavers bounced back to win big, 6-2, despite being outshot, 27-19, by a Gophers team that played 17 NHL draftees. (Bemidji has one, senior defenseman Chris Peluso, drafted by Pittsburgh in 2004). Serratore called it “a monumental win,” accomplished with backup goalie Mathieu Dugas, a freshman from Quebec, making his second college start and his first in a month.

“This is a premier program in the country,” Serratore said of Minnesota, which at 4-5-1 sure isn’t playing like one.

“Any time you get a win in this building, you take it,” he said. “It’s an exciting time.”

Peters watched from the upper level of the press box as Bemidji pumped in three goals in an 86-second span in the third period. The first, a nifty top-shelf wrist shot by sophomore defenseman Brad Hunt on a power play, brought a little whoop from Peters, who then watched quietly as forwards Jamie MacQueen and Aaron McLeod beat goalie Kent Patterson with backhanders. Minnesota coach Don Lucia changed goalies twice, benching starter Alex Kangas for Patterson after one period and two goals, then bringing Kangas back after McLeod’s goal.

“We’ve been in Division I for 11 years,” Peters said as he watched the play below. “There was an adjustment period, and that takes time.

“Teams in this conference are just a fraction of a second quicker, and it makes all the difference in the world. The test for Bemidji is whether it can play at this tempo week after week. We can get up for a game, or a series. But can they do it week after week?”

At least Bemidji will get a chance to find out. It applied to join the WCHA knowing its conference, College Hockey America, planned to disband after this season. The 10-team WCHA preferred that a 12th team join with Bemidji to balance its schedule, and negotiations with Nebraska-Omaha nearly broke down over financial terms.

At the time I was working on a profile of Nebraska-Omaha athletic director Trev Alberts for The New York Times. Here’s how close the deal came to falling apart: Alberts told me he asked sports information director Dave Ahlers to prepare a release stating that the Mavs were staying in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. Alberts said he had a copy on his desk when Don Leahy, the former Nebraska-Omaha athletic director whom Alberts brought back as a part-time associate AD, called and asked Alberts to speak with St. Cloud State AD Morris Kurtz, an old friend and colleague, before announcing anything.

That conversation led to an agreement, a 12-team WCHA and a new home for the Beavers, who will save a bundle of money on travel. Bemidji flew almost everywhere in the CHA and will bus to most WCHA sites.
Serratore and Lucia are old friends from the Range, so Serratore had no interest in gloating, or using Sunday victory’s to suggest the Beavers will be an upper-echelon WCHA team right away.

“Obviously it gives you some confidence, and you might be closer than you think,” Serratore said. “It validates that we’re doing the right things.”

 Matt Read, Bemidji’s leading scorer, said, “They’ll be a little more pressure on us” in the WCHA. But, he said, “Coming in here and getting a spilt is great for us. Now we know we can go into any building anywhere on the road and come out with at least a split.”

That’s also encouraging for Peters, who built the legacy that Serratore and company continue today. “We’re grateful the WCHA has seen fit to accept us,” Peters said. “Our history helped us.”

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