Tom Serratore was on the bus from the airport in Hartford to his team’s hotel in Amherst, Mass. The flight was a charter from Bemidji, Minn., right into Connecticut’s capital city, and it carried the College Hockey America (CHA) champion Bemidji State Beavers towards a date with the NCAA’s defending champs, the Denver Pioneers.
However, that game was still 41 hours away, and the coach was enjoying the post flight chatter on the bus with his team.
“Usually when we fly to a game, it’s about four flights just to get there,” said Serratore. “Ever fly from Bemidji to Huntsville, Alabama?”
Being a Northwest Airlines veteran, I could imagine: Bemidji to Minneapolis, then to Memphis. Or maybe Minneapolis through Detroit, and then to Memphis and on in to Huntsville, taking a tour of NWA hubs in the Midwest.
“Winning has its perks, we should do this more often,” said Serratore lightheartedly. “Great flight, and only one plane!”
All kidding aside, Bemidji State hockey has done its share of winning. It is actually the winningest NCAA hockey program in history when you count its tenure in Division II and Division III.
Those were the days of legendary coach Bob Peters, who won 702 games at BSU and led a team to the Final Four in all three divisions of college hockey (I, II, and III). That’s 19 Conference titles and 13 National Championships through many different divisions and levels. Serratore played for Peters, playing in 69 games and racking up 82 points between 1983 and 1987.
The Beavers arrived at the Mullins center with what many would consider the daunting task of upsetting the Pioneers. The Beavers knew they would face a No. 1 seed, and a date with Denver sounded good to Bemidji’s coach.
“It’s pick your poison. However, we think it’s pretty cool to get a chance to play the defending national champions in a one game playoff. Anything can happen,” said Serratore.
The Beavers have played a very tough non-conference schedule the past few years, and that has made them “battle tested” in the words of their coach. They routinely travel to play against all other conferences, and it is one of the reasons that the Beavers will be a tough out sometime prior to the Frozen Four.
Over the past two seasons, Bemidji has squared off, and been successful in many cases, against Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota, Ferris State, Bentley, Connecticut, Minnesota State, St. Cloud State, Merrimack, and Clarkson. They are also a team that has been in three straight CHA title games, losing a heartbreaker in OT to Niagara last season before breaking through with a 3-0 win over Alabama-Huntsville this year.
The fans in Bemidji are used to winning, and they expect it because of the past history of the program in the Division II and Division III era. Around campus, folks treat the Beavers like they are the Gophers, Badgers or Fighting Sioux. They are a big deal in town, and the success they are having has not been received as a Johnny-come-lately type of phenomenon.
For Bemidji, the experience has been business as usual. They are preparing for a tough contest, but have not been star-struck in the video they have seen of the Pioneers. Rather, they have been impressed with their own accomplishments this season, and for the senior class, this is the culmination of four very good seasons. For the underclassmen, this should whet their appetite for more success in the future.
What fans of the NCAA don’t realize is how good the Beavers are as a team. They can score, and despite an injury to their all-time leading scorer (Division I era) Andrew Murray, are very dangerous. Senior forward Brendan Cook had 39 points in 35 games this season to lead the club, and his nine power play goals are something to be aware of when the Beavers have the man advantage. Sophomore forward Luke Erickson had 38 points.
The defense has also been strong, especially in the crease. Led by freshman goalie Matt Climie (who is drawing comparisons to another great Beaver goalie — Adam Pavlatos), who won 12 of 17 games and posted a 1.69 goals against average, the Beavers can shut it down. In a weekend series at North Dakota this season, they had the Sioux down 3-0 midway through a game they were dominating, until North Dakota scratched and clawed out three goals to tie it. The next night was a dead-even draw in terms of play, with the Sioux emerging with a close win. However, they really never got their offense untracked all weekend against a stingy defense.
The Beavers have the confidence of 43 wins in the last two seasons, and are not showing up to give Denver a warmup for a game against the winner of UNH and Harvard. However, as Serratore noted, Denver brings a little something that at times his team, or many other teams outside of the WCHA don’t see.
“Carle and Skinner are scary,” he said. “Most teams have one great offensive or mobile defenseman, they have two, and that constantly creates a second wave on the rush, and that is something we have talked about all week, knowing when those guys are on the ice.”
Additionally, up front Denver has depth. While Huntsville has a great scorer in Jared Ross, Denver can throw three great scorers on one line, and then do it again on another line, and another.
However long the Bemidji run lasts, it has allowed the players to see the enjoyment the campus gets from their hockey team. The community is excited, the professors at the school are into it, and mostly, the athletic department is fired up.
Serratore says that the goal of the program is to create this every year like they have done in the past.
“We expect to win as a program, and we want that embedded in the mindsets of our players. That is what Bemidji State hockey is all about. We don’t just compete; we have a tradition of success that is very special here.”
Dave Starman serves as an analyst on CSTV Friday Night Hockey and contributes weekly to CSTV.com. Starman has coached professionally and in the amateur ranks.