By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Bemidji State Coach Tom Serratore started reading the e-mails to his team as quickly as they began streaming into his inbox 10 days ago. Hundreds of messages filled with encouragement from university staff members, attaboys from former players and congratulations from across the college hockey world.
Then there were the notes from the citizens of Bemidji, a town in northern Minnesota roughly 13,400 strong, that simply said thank you.
"There was a letter from a mother with a young adopted son, who was going through a tough time [with an illness]. All he wanted was for us to keep winning," said Tyler Scofield, the Beavers' leading goal scorer. "You read things like that and you know this isn't just about us anymore."
After upsetting Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA men's college hockey tournament and beating Cornell in the second round, the Beavers became the first No. 16 seed to make the Frozen Four, which begins tomorrow when Bemidji State faces Miami (Ohio) in a semifinal at Verizon Center. Vermont plays Boston University in the second game as Washington hosts hockey's version of the men's basketball Final Four for the first time.
Bemidji State's whirlwind weekend at the end of March caused sports fans and pundits searching for a true underdog in the college tournament season to turn their attention to the 5,000-student liberal arts college and its storied hockey team.
A little more than 100 miles from Canada, Bemidji (pronounced Beh-MIDGE-ee) is the first city on the Mississippi River and home to 18-foot statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. It's what Serratore calls "hockey country," where Bemidji State players are recognized every day and have been throughout the program's 52-year history.
When the Beavers returned home from Grand Rapids, Mich., after clinching the school's first Frozen Four berth, approximately 200 people waited to greet them at 2 a.m. in 20-degree temperatures at Bemidji Regional Airport. Outfitted with homemade signs, the fans chanted "D.C." and sang choruses of the school fight song when the team emerged from the plane.
"I tell every kid I recruit that this place isn't for everybody," said Serratore, a Bemidji State hockey alumnus in his eighth season as coach. "You have to want to be in a small town where Beaver hockey is the focus. . . . That's the beauty of a small town, though; everybody has ownership of the program. It instills so much pride in a community like this way more than it would in a metropolitan area."
Success is expected in Bemidji, where banners from 20 conference titles and 13 national championships, though none at the Division I level, hang in John Glas Fieldhouse. This is Bemidji's third trip to the NCAA tournament in 10 years in Division I, but the Beavers had not won a playoff game before stunning second-ranked Notre Dame with a 5-1 victory on March 28.
While the hockey world wondered if Bemidji State was a one-win wonder, the Beavers handled Cornell just as decisively with a 4-1 win the next day.
"We kind of have this fearless attitude about us," said captain Travis Winter, one of just six seniors on the 26-man roster. "It took us some time to get our footing, but we're playing really good hockey right now. We've been tested this season and we definitely know what we can do."
Despite the Beavers' current success, it has been far from an impeccable season. Bemidji State "could have been thrown in jail for impersonating a hockey team" at the beginning of the year, Serratore said, and their 20-15-1 record is a regular reminder to players that for half the season, the only constant was inconsistency. At one point, a six-game losing streak followed a six-game winning streak. Then on Jan. 24, for reasons neither coach nor players can pinpoint, something clicked in the dressing room when the Beavers beat Niagara, 3-1. That victory started a 12-2-1 run that has brought them here for the Frozen Four.
"Everybody really knows their role," Serratore said. "We don't have big egos on this team, or a bunch of draft choices. It's almost easier coaching a team like ours where we don't have to worry about all of that. Some of these players will advance to pro careers, but this really is something special for all of them."
The Beavers must now find a way to distance themselves from all the attention, media requests, visits from former NHLers, and the snowmen built in their honor, while still allowing themselves to relish the moment. But for many of the players, including sophomore goaltender Matt Dalton, the attention serves as inspiration for why they want more than just a Frozen Four appearance.
"That first night, I couldn't sleep," said Dalton, who turned away 59 of the 61 shots he faced in the first two tournament games. "I was just lying in bed thinking that we're only two wins away from a national championship. . . . It can be a little overwhelming, but when you look at how we've managed to give our community something to hold on to and cheer about in this economy, we want to keep it going for them as much as ourselves."