Bemidji State's berth in the Frozen Four has given the program credibility and the town an infusion of pride.
Bemidji, Minn., is home to huge statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Bemidjians won't need so much concrete and wood to honor their latest folk heroes, the life-sized creators of the local university's tall-but-true tale.
Led by players such as 5-8, 164-pound Tyler Scofield, Bemidji State this weekend became the first team seeded 16th in the NCAA hockey tournament to advance to the Frozen Four.
"I'll tell you right now, it's been a madhouse," said coach Tom Serratore, a BSU alum. "We got back at 2 a.m. after the game Sunday, and there were 200 people waiting for us at the airport. It's nice to have the whole town excited about what's happening. It's neat for a little town."
In the tournament, the Beavers outperformed all of the members of the WCHA, the conference they are petitioning to join, during the week that WCHA officials will visit the campus to kick the tires.
While in town, the WCHA officials can enjoy the lack of traffic, the clean air, perhaps take in a little world-class curling, and walk in the university's tunnels. (Think underground skyways.)
Serratore said everyone in town is talking hockey. While a small contingent of fans found their way to Grand Rapids, Mich., for the NCAA Midwest Regional -- Serratore said Sunday's regional final against Cornell played out before about 2,500 fans in all -- most locals packed the Ground Round and Lazy Jack's to watch the game on TV. (If you wanted to watch at home, you had to subscribe to Paul Bunyan cable.)
The headlines in the Bemidji Pioneer told the story, in Lake Woebegonian fashion:
"Dozens turn out at airport to welcome home Beavers at 2 a.m.''
"Tense excitement erupts at Bemidji bar as Beavers make history.''
"Beavers mentioned in New York Times.''
One of the Pioneer writers coined a phrase, describing the reception at the airport as "Beatlemania on a Bemidji scale."
"People want to grab onto something like this,'' said Serratore, whose brother, Frank, coaches Air Force, also an NCAA tournament qualifier. "It's human nature to love Bemidji State, to grab onto this kind of story. This instills pride of community and program and team, and brings all of that to a different level.
"For our players to get to see that is just so gratifying. For us to win this thing is no fluke. That's disrespectful. Because we're really good. What we should really focus on is this is good for hockey."
Serratore played at Bemidji State under Bob Peters, and he was there at the airport to greet Serratore when he returned early Monday morning. Employing a style of hockey based on what he calls "a puck pressure game,'' Serratore has learned to search for players wherever he can find them.
"We have our own little niche in recruiting,'' Serratore said. "You look at our roster, we're kind of 'Team Universe.' We're got Euros, Canadians, Minnesotans, Californians, Alaskans. We're a well-traveled group.
"It's a group of kids that works extremely hard, and we have some high-end talent, and we think we've obviously come into our own lately.''
The Beavers are 13-2-1 in their past 16 games. At the regionals, they got a boost from Scofield, their senior forward.
He's listed at 5-8, 164 pounds, but Serratore's nickname for him is "151,'' because he showed up on campus weighing 151 pounds, in full uniform.
"But he's got the heart of a lion,'' Serratore said. "I haven't coached against a kid in college hockey who's as fast as this kid. His speed and skill level are second to none."
Scofield had two goals and an assist in the Beavers' 5-1 upset of top-seeded Notre Dame, and two goals and an assist in their 4-1 defeat of No. 9 Cornell.
Those upsets send Bemidji State to the national semifinals on April 9 at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C., to face Miami of Ohio.
If you're in Bemidji that day, you can probably find the game on Paul Bunyan cable at Lazy Jack's. Tense excitement is sure to erupt.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. • firstname.lastname@example.org