"It was a wonderful feeling; it was a wonderful accomplishment," Bemidji State men's hockey coach Tom Serratore said Tuesday of the Beavers' Frozen Four effort.
"It wasn't about me; it wasn't about my team," Serratore told the Bemidji Sunrise Rotary Club. "It was about you. That's the greatest thing -- it's about everybody else."
For two weeks in early March, the Bemidji State men's hockey team rose from being the 16th and last seed in the NCAA Division I hockey regional playoffs to winning the regional at Grand Rapids, Mich., with wins over Notre Dame, 5-1, and Cornell, 4-1.
Two weeks later, Bemidji State joined Miami of Ohio, Boston University and Vermont in the Frozen Four championships at Washington, D.C. Although a 4-1 loser to Vermont, Bemidji State's effort brought the community together and showed that BSU can play hockey with the best of them.
"You don't play for yourselves -- that would be selfish," Serratore told Sunrise Rotarians. "The fans are the team. The community is the team. Whether you have a season ticket or not, it doesn't matter."
People follow the Beavers every Friday and Saturday, whether they go to the game or not, he said. "It's a talking point and people know what's going on."
Serratore said Bemidji State's uniqueness spread to the Final Four in Washington, D.C., as the team became the focus of national newspapers such as the New York Times and USA Today and also of the fans there.
"Our merchandise was gone by the beginning of the second game," Serratore said. "The same amount of merchandise was purchased for Boston University, Miami and the University of Vermont as it was for Bemidji State. Our merchandise was gone right away."
The happened in 2005 when the Beavers were in the NCAA playoffs in Amherst, Mass., he said. "That tells you a little bit about the excitement that went on this past spring."
Bemidji State's effort was keenly felt in the community as well, he said, as many local retailers sold Bemidji State Frozen Four items and the team was the talk of gatherings in restaurants and bars.
"It was not only a big deal here, but it was kind of neat to be everybody's favorite team," he said. Outside of the three towns hosting the other entries, "we were the team everybody wanted to win. ... It was special."
What will the Frozen Four trip do to the community and to Bemidji State in the future?
"Who knows?" says Serratore. "The bottom line to anything in life, you need something to grab onto. I think our little run this spring caught on like wildfire."
There is "interest and intrigue" in what will happen in the future, spurred by this year's whirlwind season, Serratore said. "It was awesome to be around here. It awesome to be around in the community. People could grab onto the Beavers. It was something to cheer and hope for."
The Frozen Four run created ownership, he said., "the ownership of a community, the ownership of alumni of the university, the ownership of a region. You think people wanted us to win badly and were so excited around here, so were the people on the Range, so were people in northwestern Minnesota, so were the people in the Twin Cities, so were the people nationwide."
The Beavers' run allowed people to grab onto something, he said. "It kind of took their mind off of whatever's going on in their life and converted it to what we were trying to do and what we were trying to accomplish."
It also created economic impact for two weeks with merchandising and social gatherings. "Everybody really had ownership in that particular two weeks," he said. "It put a spark and a twinkle in everybody's eyes."
The future? "We go 0-6 next year, and people forget awful quick what we accomplished," Serratore said. "It's not easy for a school like ours to accomplish what we did. It's not easy, and I don't know if I'll ever have that opportunity in coaching in the Frozen Four again."
Serratore credited retired BSU President Jim Bensen for having the foresight to have Bemidji State in hockey jump up to Division I.
"There were concerns and question marks should we do it," he said. "Should we go to Division I as a school of our size? First of all, we had no choice. It was either drop hockey or go Division I. Fast forward 10 years, that's why we went Division I, because of what we did a month ago."
If it only happens every 10 or 15 years, "it's worth it," Serratore, a former BSU hockey player himself with Iron Range roots, said.
It's special that a small school like Bemidji State can play and beat Notre Dame, "the most visible institution in the world," he said. "We can play with those people. ... There's nothing wrong rubbing our elbows with Notre Dame, Cornell ..."
Playing in the Frozen Four, "you can't put a price tag on the kind of exposure that gave our community," Serratore said, "and our region and our state."
Serratore also credited his team as an all-around talented effort on and off the ice.
"You can't be good on the ice unless you have good people off the ice," he said. In the last six years, 32 out of 37 seniors graduated with degrees in four years. The team grade-point average over that time was 3.41, he said. Even this spring, with the hoopla of playoffs and the Frozen Four, the GPA spring semester was 3.5.
"We have 18 kids on the All-Academic team this year out of 27," Serratore said.
That discipline, he said, will help when the Beavers are down 3-2 in the third period. "Our sport is such a grind," he added, saying hockey starts two weeks before and ends three weeks after Division I basketball.
The Beavers men's and women's Division I teams will have a new arena to play in with the 2010 season in the Bemidji Regional Event Center.
The 4,000-seat rink was seen as instrumental to get in the door of the prestigious Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
The WCHA lifted its moratorium on new teams and BSU applied for membership. The WCHA late last month, however, extended that open enrollment in order to actively seek a 12th member to join BSU to make scheduling easier.
While BSU hasn't been handed its membership card, Serratore is confident that will happen.
"It think that if it's going to happen, it's going to happen pretty quick," he said. "It's the best league in college hockey, equivalent to the Big Ten or the Southeastern Conference in football or the Big East in basketball."
Serratore said he was bothered by national Frozen Four coverage that labeled Bemidji State as a Cinderella team or as David against Goliath.
"I feel our resume is very strong and the WCHA teams and administration know how strong our program's been the last 52 years," he said.
And BSU has championship trophies in all major college divisions over the years except NCAA Division I.
"Our resume stands on its own two feet," Serratore said. "The Frozen Four was obviously a good footnote."