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John J. McRae column: The CHA's last hurrah

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sports Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

College Hockey America, the 11-year experiment for college hockey expansion, was officially put to rest Saturday at the NCAA Midwest Regional in Fort Wayne, Ind.

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On Saturday afternoon, the University of Alabama-Huntsville - which won the league's last automatic bid to the national tournament - was defeated by Miami 2-1. Later that evening, Bemidji State fell in the regional's second semifinal 5-1 to Michigan.

In the end the league, which had posted so many big wins over major teams for more than a decade, faded away quietly. There would be no "upsets" in the CHA's last hurrah.

Both teams, however, represented the league well, proving they belonged at the national tournament.

Coaches, players and fans from opposing teams heaped praise on both UAH and Bemidji State. And it wasn't just words.

Fond memories

The Division I history of the Bemidji State men's hockey team and the beginning of the CHA go nearly hand in hand. BSU was one of the founding members of the league.

Head coach Tom Serratore took over from R.H. "Bob" Peters during the league's infancy. Following the Beavers' game against Michigan on Saturday, memories of the early years in DI came rushing back.

Can't remember which year it was exactly, but there was a conversation between the hockey beat writer and Serratore during the off-season. Serratore was looking to make a point to illustrate just how far the program had come in the eyes of the national college hockey world.

"Michigan called and wanted to schedule a game with us," Serratore said proudly. "Of course, they want us to play them at their arena. But still, it shows we're doing things the right way and the established schools are noticing."

Fast forward a few years. They all are doing much more than noticing now.

The Beavers were deeply disappointed after falling to Michigan in the Midwest Regional. Losing is always tough in a one-and-done situation.

But lost in the immediacy of the loss was just how far the BSU program has come in such a short amount of time: from being enthused about just getting a call from an elite program to being the higher seed against the same Michigan program at an NCAA regional.

Bemidji State entered the national tournament as the home team against Michigan - the program that has won a record nine national championships and advanced to the NCAA tournament for 20 consecutive years.

Wow.

Legendary Michigan head coach Red Berenson praised the Beavers extensively both before and after the game. He kept mispronouncing the city's name, saying "Bee-Mee-Gee," but it was obviously not meant as a slight by any means.

"That wasn't a 5-1 game," Berenson said. "Bemidji was in the game the whole way ... I watched more tape on Bemidji in the last week than I have in a lifetime. They have one of the quickest teams we've faced. We knew we had to keep the pressure on them the whole way or they could take over the game...their first line is the best we have seen all year...I thought we did a pretty good job of minimizing the damage. I thought we treated them with respect."

The quotes continued to flow, but the point was made. For the second year in a row, a legendary coach from an elite college hockey program went to great lengths to extol the Bemidji State program.

The Beavers started to arrive last season by advancing to the Frozen Four. But that was still questioned, albeit in whispers, in many circles as possibly just a team getting on a roll at the right time, riding a hot goalie and surprising some teams.

Well, the Beavers put away any doubts with a spectacular 2009-10 season. The program cemented itself as truly belonging among the top 20 programs in the nation.

Once again ...wow.

What a credit to Serratore, along with assistants Bert Gilling and Ted Belisle. What a tribute to the student athletes who fight their way through a brutal six-month season, all the while being full-time.

Saturday's loss also brought another major point to the forefront - it made everyone involved in the 2008-09 dream season realize just how truly special that run to the Frozen Four was for everyone.

Those types of seasons don't come around very often. The next time it does for the Beavers, and yes, there will be a next time, we all must drink in every moment.

There will be a next time - the Bemidji State program has proven it is special at every level of competition in the university's history. Want to bet against Serratore and Company? Good luck.

The next chapter has already started with the text to be written at the Bemidji Regional Events Center and as a member of the prestigious WCHA.

Something deep inside says this next chapter is going to be the best yet.

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