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Cinderella Bemidji State's Future on Ice

Apr 7, 2009 – 12:45 PM
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Bruce Ciskie

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FanHouse brings you full coverage of the 2009 NCAA Men's Frozen Four in Washington, D.C.

Bemidji State shocked the college hockey world March 29 in Grand Rapids, Mich. They beat Cornell 4-1 to advance to their first-ever NCAA Men's Frozen Four.

There's no question Bemidji State is a decided underdog this weekend. Amid comparisons to the 2006 George Mason basketball team, the Mason pep band is actually going to play on behalf of the Beavers at the Frozen Four (Bemidji State's band was unavailable). The comparisons to the Patriots, however, end when you consider that the Beavers' program might not exist in two years unless they can find a new league who will have them.

The Beavers have a great history. They didn't join the ranks of Division I until 1999, but were one of the top small-school hockey programs in the country for many years prior to the move.

Bemidji State has had a hockey program since the 1946-47 season, when they went 0-5-1 while playing without a coach. Their most famous hockey coach, R.H. "Bob" Peters, coached from 1966 through 2001, compiling a record of 702-293-49 (Peters took a one-year sabbatical in 1982-83). The 1983-84 Beavers were one of only five teams in college hockey history to post an unbeaten and untied season; they won the Division II national title with a 31-0-0 mark.

The program won seven NAIA national titles before moving into NCAA Division II in 1982. They won five Division II titles, and also won an NCAA Division III title in 1986 (the NCAA had discontinued the Division II Championship for a time in the mid-1980s), before making the jump to Division I.

The mere idea of a program like this (or Bowling Green, for that matter) being in any danger of dissolution makes a college hockey fan's head spin. Just think about this: A program that has won 13 national championships (and could make it 14 this weekend) might not exist within three years.

What Went Wrong

It all started when Bemidji State decided to take their program to Division I. The Beavers had been highly successful in Division II for a number of years, but the numbers in Division II were dwindling quickly. The NCAA stopped sanctioning a Division II men's hockey championship in 1999, and, with no title to contend for, the division's most prominent programs had to make a decision.

Army, Air Force, Findlay (Ohio), Mercyhurst (Pa.), Niagara (N.Y.), Wayne State (Mich.), and Alabama-Huntsville joined Bemidji State in a new league called College Hockey America. The league never really got off the ground. Mercyhurst and Army jumped to the more geographically-fitting Atlantic Hockey in 2003, soon joined by Air Force. Findlay dropped hockey after the 2003-2004 season, while Wayne State dropped its struggling program in 2008.

What's left in College Hockey America isn't much. Original members Bemidji State, Niagara, and Alabama-Huntsville are joined by Robert Morris (Pa.). However, four teams is not enough to qualify for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA has kindly granted a waiver for CHA so they can continue offering the autobid to their tournament champion. Still, everyone recognizes the league is quickly dying.

With that in mind, Robert Morris and Niagara have made the move to Atlantic Hockey, creating a third 12-team league in Division I. The remaining schools, Bemidji State and Alabama-Huntsville, do not have a conference affiliation beyond the 2009-2010 season. Because of how few college programs there are (there are 58 Division I hockey programs), it would be nearly impossible to keep a program independent

Also complicating matters for Bemidji State is a facilities issue. In order to gain admission to the prestigious Western Collegiate Hockey Association, BSU needed a serious upgrade to their current arena, the John Glas Fieldhouse. The building seats around 2,400, which would make it easily the smallest building in the league, and it lacks the necessary amenities. Even the press box in the old building is subpar, with the visiting radio station placed in a spot that requires the play-by-play person to peek around a wooden pole to see a good chunk of the action.

Groundbreaking was held last week for the Bemidji Regional Events Center. The facility will include an arena with seating for 4,000 fans, and Bemidji State hockey is scheduled to be the primary tenant. Will there be a hockey program to inhabit the arena?

What's Next

Bemidji State has applied for membership to the WCHA. That league currently has 10 teams, including four from Minnesota (Minnesota, Minnesota State, Minnesota-Duluth, and St. Cloud State), along with North Dakota, which is only about a two-hour drive from Bemidji.

(Meanwhile, Alabama-Huntsville has applied to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, a 12-team league based mainly in Michigan and Ohio.)

The WCHA makes geographic sense for Bemidji, and it's probably their best bet to keep a relevant hockey program. After all, they'd have five good regional rivalries to cultivate. However, their admission to the league has hit a potential roadblock.

To get in the league, BSU needs approval from eight out of 10 current members. The five "neighboring" schools seem like easy bets to vote in the Beavers' favor. However, nothing else is certain. Michigan Tech is located in far away Houghton. It's about a seven-hour bus ride from there to Bemidji, and much of it is annoying two-lane highway that's no fun to drive on, especially during a nasty Lake Superior-driven snowstorm. Wisconsin is about the same distance by bus, but a much easier drive. Still, it's not a lock that they'd vote in BSU's favor because of those travel issues.

The other three WCHA schools -- Alaska-Anchorage, Colorado College, and Denver -- are potentially more likely to vote "no" than "yes." Travel difficulties would be the top concern, as all three would have to fly into Fargo and face a bus ride to Bemidji that could approach three hours, especially in bad weather.

Also complicating things is the matter of scheduling. At the arena groundbreaking, a former member of the Minnesota House of Representatives deadpanned that the Big Ten has 11 teams, so it should be easy to work it out in the WCHA. However, league commissioner Bruce McLeod has said it's not that simple.
"I have put together an 11-team 28-game schedule for three years out," he said. "You can put it together. ... But there's no model to it. ... I have yet to figure out a way – I've been in NHL offices, every place I can to try to find some model that works with some fairness, some balance to it and I have yet to come up with it.

"It's not fair to the institutions that are in the league right now, that they have no idea what their opponents' schedule is going to look like from year to year," he said. "It has no recognition of traditional opponents we have in the league."
The WCHA's current scheduling model rotates every four years. There are 10 teams that play 28 conference games. Those 28 games are divided up into 14 two-game series. Through the four-year cycle, each team will play three home and three away series against every other opponent in the league, except one "protected" opponent, against whom a team plays two series against every year. It allows the league to strike a fair and equitable scheduling balance.

Longtime WCHA writer Virg Foss, who covered North Dakota hockey for 35 years, called out the commissioner last week for his awkward scheduling stance.
The bottom line is that college hockey must find a way to keep the Bemidji State program alive. And the WCHA, a perfect geographical fit for Bemidji State, is the league that must step up and do that. Not next year, not two years from now. The time is now, at the meetings in Florida the end of the month.
This should not be the issue that keeps Bemidji State out of the WCHA, especially given what's at stake. However, it is something both sides need to address April 27, when Bemidji State gives a formal presentation to the league in hopes of gaining support.

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McLeod won't comment on Bemidji's application, only saying that he feels it's "strong." Other league officials contacted did not want to specifically discuss Bemidji's case.

Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore has bigger fish to fry, being that his team plays a national semifinal at the Frozen Four Thursday. The BSU alum still understands that this is a different moment than anything fans or former players got to experience.

"Bob (Peters) stopped by and said with the Frozen Four and the groundbreaking of the new rink, there's never been a better, more exciting time for Bemidji State hockey," he said.

Serratore said he feels a 12th team would be found for the WCHA if the league added Bemidji. He's probably right, as both Nebraska-Omaha and Northern Michigan (both in the CCHA right now) would make sense for the league. Not only that, but Alabama-Huntsville still needs a home if they're going to survive. If the WCHA takes Bemidji, the CCHA almost has to take Huntsville, and then the two leagues can either deal with the scheduling issues brought about by an odd number of members, or they can work out a deal to send one CCHA team to the WCHA.

The greater question is: Does the WCHA have an obligation to do what it can to save Bemidji State's program?

It's not really a black-and-white issue. Should one of Division I's most prominent leagues go out of its way to save a program when it doesn't make competitive or economic sense? No.

However, this move would make both competitive and economic sense. Bemidji has had many cracks at WCHA members in recent years, and they've more than held their own. Not only that, but there aren't any WCHA teams at this year's Frozen Four. A WCHA member school in Bemidji would draw fans for league series, and it would deliver some serious meaning to regular season games at Bemidji's new rink. This is potentially a huge plus for Bemidji, for northwest Minnesota, and for the WCHA.

Todd Milewski has covered WCHA hockey for many years, both for The Capital Times of Madison and for USCHO, and he offered up a very interesting take via e-mail:
All 10 WCHA schools can probably come up with some way that admitting Bemidji would negatively impact their program or their athletic department's budget. If even three of the schools take that as their greatest consideration, I'm pretty sure that we won't be seeing Bemidji in the league. But you'd hope that there would be some sense of greater vision from the people that will be making this call, and that the issues here are more than just whether Bemidji State still has a program after next season. We're talking about college hockey as a whole at the Division I level. If Bemidji goes, I'm guessing others will follow. That may not impact the WCHA directly, but it will down the line.

... The WCHA has, at times, been a force of change in college hockey. Instant replay, like it or not, was pushed into the college game largely because of a WCHA trial. In its infancy, Hockey East partnered with the WCHA for an interlocking schedule that helped the conference get off the ground. There will be change again with the WCHA's decision, but there's the potential for change for the worse if Bemidji doesn't have a home.
The scheduling bugaboo would have to be worked out, but that issue is minor compared to the damage that would be done to college hockey if it lost one of its most storied programs.
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