I keep thinking Tom Serratore should have received a championship ring from the University of Denver. After all, his team gave the Pioneers the awakening of a lifetime in last season’s East Regional in Amherst.
Denver looked listless at times. Serratore’s Bemidji State Beavers gave the Pioneers all they could handle, but Denver won, in OT, 4-3, and rolled from there.
Bemidji State, in defeat, won in one area. The Beavers re-emerged as a force to be reckoned with in college hockey. By giving Denver a gut-check game, they launched the defending champs on their way to a second consecutive national title.
This season has started much like last season ended. The Beavers are the defending CHA champions, and have shot out of the gate with their best start in 20 years.
“The link between how well we finished and the start we have had this season (8-2, 6-2 on the road) is confidence, and great goaltending,” Serratore said as he begins the fifth season as head coach at Bemidji State. “If you can win six of eight on the road, you must be playing with confidence, and you need great special teams and goaltending, and we have had that.”
That confidence comes from experience. The Beavers are in a position where they recruit for older freshmen, players who have played the extra years of junior hockey after graduating from high school. Whether they are USHL vets, or have played in Western Canada, the players arrive as freshmen older, more physically and mentally mature, and ready for the adversity that the CHA schedule presents them.
“We travel a lot,” said Serratore, discussing the opening of a season in which the Beavers have already played at Duluth (two wins for a sweep), Air Force (split), Wayne State (sweep), and Ferris State (split). “Older players have been through the junior battles, the travel, the schedule, and they know how to prepare for and handle the demands put on an athlete in an adverse situation.”
Recruiting is a huge part of your season, no matter whether you’re Bemidji State or Michigan State. However, the difference is that Michigan State will attract high-end freshman out of the USHL or Canadian Tier II as a member of the CCHA (a “Big Four” conference), and with its storied history.
Bemidji State, which has the highest winning percentage of the 59 teams currently competing at the Division I level (.619, 880-400-70 all time in its D-I and D-III eras), plays in College Hockey America, a lesser-known conference.
The school has attracted top players who helped it to its championship last season after barely missing the season before, losing a wild 4-3 OT championship game to Niagara. Players like Andrew Murray and Brendan Cook each notched 100 career points for Bemidji State, and departed with a senior class that ranks among the best, if not the best in school history.
As with all Minnesota-based schools, the Beavers try to go after the locals first. With Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State, and St. Cloud State in the WCHA, those recruiting battles are tough. However, they have been able to recruit well by sticking to a philosophy that emphasizes finding the players who best fit their program.
“Sometimes you can offer a scholarship to a player and that attracts them, sometimes you get a really good player that wants to play more than he would at another D-I school in Minnesota. The key for us is to find a kid that will fit in here with what we are, where the school is, and what each has to offer the other.”
The Beavers make sure they identify a large pool of talent and hit those areas hard. They have done very well in Alberta and Manitoba, as well as landing some good kids from their home state.
Serratore keeps working his magic, and the Beavers keep winning. Interconference play is a reason the program is so strong. They’ll be off Thanksgiving weekend, and then play Niagara at home. After that, the CHA takes a back seat and BSU will take on Lake Superior State at home, play a home-and-home with North Dakota, and then compete at the Vermont Holiday Classic (playing Colgate, currently ranked No. 15, and the winner of Vermont/Dartmouth. UVM is now No. 5).
After that, it’s CHA league games. The playoffs are mid-March, and Serratore hopes to land a third consecutive appearance on CSTV in the league championship game.
“Get good goaltending, and we have it now with Matt Climie and Layne Sedevie,” said Serratore.
“I’ve always said, if you have the chance to get a good coach or a good goalie, take the goalie.”
In Bemidji, they have both.
Dave Starman is national columnist for USCHO.com, and the analyst for CSTV’s broadcasts of college hockey. Previously, he coached in both the minor leagues and in junior hockey for 15 years. He is currently special assistant coach for the EJHL’s New York Apple Core, as well as the Northeast scout for the USHL’s Waterloo Black Hawks.