Dan O'Brien, the Hamline athletic director, had a chance to hire Scott Bell as his hockey coach in 2004. He went for Chris Brown, who had experience as a Division III head coach.

The Pipers were 4-20-1 overall with one victory in the MIAC. The next year, Brown moved a couple of exits west on Interstate 94 to Augsburg, where he served one season as Mike Schwartz's assistant before becoming the head coach.

"It was June when Chris left," O'Brien said. "I called Scott and he said, 'I'm not going to come over and talk to you unless it's my job.' I said, 'It's yours. And we need you right now.'"

Once hired, Bell went to the hockey office. This is not located in Hamline's shiny Klas Center, where O'Brien hangs out, but tucked away in what's basically a walk-in closet in the ancient Hutton Arena.

"The only thing visible in the office was one sheet of loose-leaf paper on the desk with some names on it," Bell said. "One of our players, Ben Gustafson, had been sitting in the office, calling those guys, trying to get them to come to Hamline to play hockey."

Bell rummaged through the desk and found more heart-warming information: The balance in Hamline's hockey fund was $250.

"We had seven players, four-year-old jerseys, no sticks and $250," Bell said.

The new coach had a brainstorm: We'll put on a golf tournament to raise money.

It was held in August at Como, a blue-collar track, to say the most.

"We wound up with eight people who paid $100," Bell said. "The contributors were outnumbered by players and coaches."

Bell had coached in the Fall Elite league for high school players. This gave him a familiarity with some excellent players. He convinced two of them, Joe Long and Dustin Fulton, to enroll as freshmen at Hamline in 2005.

"I told Long and Fulton they would never leave the ice, and they could be my co-captains as freshmen," Bell said. "You have to give credit to players who could've gone anywhere [in Division III] and decided to try to achieve success the hard way."

There were 18 freshmen on Bell's roster in 2005-06. Long, Fulton and a few others were clearly of MIAC caliber, and others were there to help put a team on the ice. Seven remain as juniors from that group of 18.

"That first year, Scott talked to us about a future with MIAC titles and appearances in national tournaments," Long said. "Then, we started playing and I thought, 'What's he talking about?' We were getting killed ... outshot like 45-10."

The Pipers were 3-11-2 (4-16-3 overall) and eighth in the nine-team MIAC in Bell's first season. Last winter, they were 3-13 (7-18 overall) and finished last in the MIAC.

This put Hamline's record in the past dozen seasons in the MIAC at 26-158-9, a .158 winning percentage. The Pipers were picked to finish eighth in the preseason poll.

They opened the season with a 7-1 loss at Wisconsin-Stout. They were at highly rated UW-River Falls the next night.

"We went down 3-0 in the first period," freshman Jared Hummel said. "In the locker room, Joe Long got up and said, 'I'm so sick of losing. We're not doing this again. We're not!'

"To me, that's what changed everything for this team. We came out and scored four goals. River Falls won 5-4, but we proved to ourselves that we could compete on the road [with] a team that was one of the best in D-III."

Long said: "I go off in the locker room once a year. This time, I used it up in the second game. Maybe I waited too long to throw a fit the first two years."

The Pipers opened MIAC play Nov. 16 with a victory over Gustavus. That hadn't happened in a while. Feb. 8, they defeated St. Thomas 5-4. That hadn't happened since 1992-93 -- a streak in which the Tommies were 28-0-1 vs. Hamline.

The Pipers needed a sweep of a home-and-home series with St. John's last weekend to win the MIAC regular-season title for the first time in 60 years.

The Pipers won 4-1 at Drake Arena in St. Paul on Friday night. They rallied for a 6-5 victory over the Johnnies at the National Hockey Center on Saturday.

Hamline was 11-3-2 and champion of a league that had come to take the Pipers' doormat status for granted.

"Ben Gustafson came bursting into our locker room after the game, screaming, 'Yes, yes, yes!' just going crazy," Bell said. "Most of our players didn't even know who he was ... that he was the player calling recruits three years ago, trying to keep us going.

"To see him that happy made winning a title even better."

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. • preusse@startribune.com