Over 36 years of coaching college hockey, R.H. “Bob” Peters coached 13 national champions and accumulated 744 wins — second most all-time behind recently-retired Michigan State coach Ron Mason. He took the Bemidji State hockey program from NAIA status all the way up the ladder through Divisions III, II, and I before leaving the coaching ranks to become the commissioner of College Hockey America after the 2000-2001 season. He played a pivotal role in creating the new conference, which in turn was a critical factor leading to the first-ever 16-team NCAA Tournament this season.
Yet when you talk to this college-hockey legend, he would not have you believe that he has been a driving force in the sport for nearly four decades. He makes it sound like he has been merely along for a wonderful ride during an era of the sport’s staggering growth in this country. He gives you the impression that all this growth just happened to coincide with the timing of his coaching career, and that — as much as anything — he was a beneficiary of the sport’s development more than a trailblazer himself.
Perhaps this just indicates his humility is as incredible as his achievements.
“I’m grateful to be a continuing part of college hockey as a commissioner,” Peters said, referring to his “comfortable” transition after deciding to finish his coaching career. “It comes from what I have seen since 1956 when I was a college hockey player. From then ’til now — I believe that back in those days there were 17, maybe 19, Division I teams in the country, and there was no real organized Division III.
“Today we have 60 Division I teams, and I do believe somewhere in the vicinity of 87 or so Division III teams, and of course women’s hockey has just catapulted in popularity.
“I’ll say this: I do remember in the early sixties — when I began coaching — the veteran coaches talking about the growth of the game and how they saw the future. What they were talking about has unfolded pretty much to what I heard with regard to their thoughts and projections. At the time I cast a jaundiced eye at some of those comments, but I can say that as the years went by it has come to fruition.”
The landscape certainly has changed dramatically since Peters kicked off his college hockey career at North Dakota in 1964-65 before moving to Bemidji State two seasons later. When he first became the Beavers’ coach, the program was still enduring the consequences of a day in 1950 when the roof caved in on the ice hockey program — literally.
“Kind of a weird story: we went from ’47 to ’50, and then the roof fell in on the city arena, and then there was no hockey till ’59,” Peters said. “Then they started outdoors. They had a curling rink/hockey rink that shared the same wall, and the roof fell in on the hockey side, not the curling side.
“So anyways, it resurrected in 1959, and the university got involved again and decided that we needed to have a rink on campus, and by 1967 we entered a new arena. I came in ’66 — we were actually still outside. We played games, so that’s the way it was. The university just said we have too much of a history; it’s part of our culture up here, and we’re not going to terminate hockey.”
The Bemidji State program came in from the cold in a big way, winning four consecutive NAIA championships in its first four seasons in the John S. Glas Fieldhouse and three more subsequently. Peters would go on to win a national title in Division III and four in Division II. Finally, when he “knew it was time,” he left coaching with a cumulative record of 744-313-51 for a winning percentage of .694.
“I was so fortunate,” Peters said. “I just really had excellent people working with me. I never had a full-time assistant coach in my entire career at North Dakota or here until 1999. We had a goodly number of young men who aspired to coach and who went on to nice careers in high schools, etc. … So I received great help from that particular group.
“Then the availability of players in Minnesota. Perhaps we were an example, particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, of how far hockey had advanced in the state of Minnesota. My proof of that is that in 1969-70 we had three players play for us and the U.S. National Team at the same time. I don’t know of any other school who had that — it certainly was unusual.
“[The U.S. team] had to win the ‘B’ tournament and beat Romania that year to get back in the Olympics in ’72, and they won it,” Peters recalled. “So that was a terrific era. We won four NAIA championships at that time. On those teams we had five Olympic and National players — five people that put on the red, white and blue. That’s when the light really went on with me: ‘My God, this sport is really growing.’”
— Bob Peters on the CHA
Peters figured out that there was too much hockey talent out there for Division I teams to be able to find all the potentially great college players out there. Exhibit A would be Joel Otto, a Bemidji State star who went on to become the premiere defensive forward in the National Hockey League.
“Oh my God, he did everything for us,” Peters said. “He was very difficult to handle, but he came out of Elk River, Minnesota with very little fanfare because their high school program at the time was not what one would say was in the category of Roseau or Warroad or International Falls — some of the programs in the state tournaments.
“Thankfully Bob Johnson wanted him and gave him an opportunity at Calgary,” Peters recalled, reminiscing about the days of the great Calgary-Edmonton rivalry in the NHL. “One has to ponder this: When Wayne Gretzky was on the ice, so was Joel Otto — that was their counter. Here’s Joel Otto out of Elk River, Minnesota, and no Division I team at the time wanted him.”
Must have been Peters’ mentoring.
“No, it’s not my coaching that did it. It’s just opportunity, and he’s a fine person.”
Otto played on the amazing Beaver team of 1983-84 — the club that went 31-0-0 and won a Division II Championship. “Joel Otto was on that team, but he wasn’t our leading scorer,” noted Peters. “A boy by the name of Mike Alexander out of Twin Cities ended up being our all-time leading point getter.”
But if that particular version of Bemidji State was the best ever, perhaps the 1985-86 proved to have the most exciting fate.
“In ’86, in the first round of the National Championship, we tied the game with four seconds left and won it in overtime, and then went on to win the National Championship,” Peters said.
Peters wasn’t exactly expecting miracles just before his team tied RIT in the closing seconds on March 21, 1986.
“I remember the puck came over the blue line, when we were pressing the attack, and I looked up at the clock and there was something like 11 seconds left, and I thought, ‘Oh my, we’re toast.’ And the puck went in.
“And you know what’s funny about that?” The guy that scored the winning goal in overtime was a player I almost cut as a freshman. So clumsy — he had the biggest feet I’d ever seen — and when he was on the ice practicing I had to watch him because he’d run in to me. And I thought ‘Ah, gee, he’s a good kid, I’ll hang on to him.’ I had his two brothers with me.”
The CHA Commissioner chuckled at the memory of Todd Lescarbeau floundering around on the ice.
“So to show you how smart I am as a coach, this boy goes on to be All-American, All-Conference, MVP of the Conference and scores the winning goal of the overtime. And he got the assist on the darned tie-er. There’s my coaching!”
In addition to enjoying many high points while coaching a whopping 1,108 games, Peters also got to see some wacky moments
“I had a player killing a penalty when I was coaching at North Dakota,” Peters said. “He bounces the puck off the boards and he skates full speed — all the energy he had left — to our box. He no sooner gets to the box and plunks himself down and the freakin’ puck goes in their net. It had gone all the way down to the other end: The defending goalie was motioning to his defenseman — he was going to push it off into the corner — plunk, it went between his legs. ‘You scored sitting on the bench!’”
So after figuring that he’s seen just about everything he can see from behind the bench, Peter has relished his new role in the formation and rise of College Hockey America.
“When we formed this conference, it was a direct result of a combination of two things: the independents who were out there at the time — Air Force and Niagara — and then the teams that were classified Division II that were being told you must move up or down,” Peters said. “We couldn’t move down because the entire athletic programs would have to go down. For example at Bemidji State was that we’d have had to withdraw from a conference to go down to Division III, but there was no Division III conference that would take us. It just wasn’t feasible at all. Our other sports would have had no place to play, and we couldn’t just float out there as an independent.”
Fortunately, Peters hails from a state of true believers in college hockey.
“In ’98, the president said, ‘We’re going to Division I hockey for men and women,’ which was a very bold statement at the time,” Peters said. “Women’s hockey was just emerging, and we had a club team. But I supported that: It was the right thing to do here in Minnesota. On the women’s side, we have over 130 high schools playing girls’ hockey, so it’s natural for us as a state university to put forth a program.”
Now, the 2002-03 season will mark a historic first for college hockey as well as for Peters’ conference.
“Eventually it all worked out where we have the automatic qualifier this year,” Peters said. “It took patience and persistence too but I also felt comfortable in my heart that we were doing things correctly. That was the mission — I was on it. I believed strongly that it had to happen.
“Probably what caused the increase from 12 to 16 was the emergence of the MAAC Conference and the CHA. The MAAC came in ahead of us, and the total number of [Division I] teams went from 43 to 54. [But] it wasn’t until the CHA came in and bumped it to 60: You go from 43 to 60 teams; it’s quite an increase. So when we hit that 60 number, the decision was made to increase to 16 teams.”
Peters still sees incredible growth potential for college hockey — especially in comparison to other college sports.
“In football, basketball, wrestling, perhaps baseball also, there are no new teams starting — no universities starting them up,” Peters said. “Whereas with hockey … I’ve counted 162 club teams that are operating. Some of those folks come to our meetings in Florida, and they have a trophy — that’s marvelous. And I can visualize some day that these people are going to elevate to Division I. Maybe not all of them, but certainly I can see that happening … particularly with the popularity generated by the National Hockey League.”
Making a point about hockey’s spreading popularity, Peters reflected on the days when the U.S. national teams and Olympic teams would be culled from Boston and Minneapolis, with players almost exclusively from those two states.
“Then you go back a few years ago when one of our players, Joel Otto, played for the U.S. Olympic team. He was the only Minnnesotan, and they added a late one, Jamie Langenbrunner — so we had two Minnesotans on the squad!” Peters exclaimed. “And I don’t decry that in any manner but rather offer that as an example of ‘Look at the growth of this sport, where they’re coming from.’”
Peters has been heartened and amazed by seeing youth hockey exploding in his travels — even in the heat of Indianapolis and Phoenix in July.
“It’s all over — it’s coast to coast, border to border,” Peter said. “We’ve come a long, long way, but there’s a lot more work to do. And that’s where my enthusiasm comes from, what I’ve seen, what we have today, and what can be in the future.”
Peters appears to love having the opportunity to continue devoting his considerable energy and enthusiasm to a sport that has been a huge part of his life.
“It’s been a great run,” he concluded. “I’m so grateful to the players that I’ve had, to the other coaches who came in as graduate assistants to help out and of course to the reception that we’ve received — meaning the CHA — by the other conferences in scheduling us. We didn’t have difficulty at all with people stepping right up to encourage us.
“This year the conference has 80 non-conference games against every conference in the country — the other five — and two in Canada,” Peters said. “When you see that type of encouragement and help from your neighbors in hockey, it’s so heart-warming.”
Peters marvels at the intensity of appreciation that hockey players, coaches, and fans feel for the sport.
“I often refer to this darned game of hockey as a cult,” Peters said. “It’s a cult — we’re all members of it, and what drives us is the love of the game. We coach the game because we love it, and we love the game because we coach it. I think that pretty well sums up the spirit of the people coaching college hockey today.”
If college hockey is a cult, then Bob Peters is undoubtedly a cult classic.