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McRae column: Our little town is never going to be the same with BSU in the WCHA

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Get ready, Bemidji. Our little town is never going to be the same ...

The announcement Friday that the Bemidji State men's hockey program has been admitted into the Western Collegiate Hockey Association is an absolutely and positively huge development.

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Sit back and think about it -- come October of 2010, just little more than one year from now, the Bemidji State men's hockey team will be playing in a brand new, state-of-art facility on the shores of Lake Bemidji. And each week the Beavers will be playing on a national stage, against the very best teams in the nation, as a part of the very best college hockey conference in the land.

Welcome to the big time.

Think back a couple of months when the Beavers made their incredible postseason run that culminated in a trip to the Frozen Four. Think of the national publicity and the huge energy that was generated in the community. Think about the Frozen Four/BSU merchandise that went flying off the shelves.

Now think about that same level of excitement being generated week after week, year after year in our town.

We are about to embark on an amazing ride.

People dared to dream of such a possibility for years, but there were always lingering doubts.

"This announcement by the WCHA is the realization of a decade-long dream for Bemidji State University," Bemidji State President Dr. Jon E. Quistgaard said. "Pursuing membership in the WCHA was the ultimate goal of the university when it made the bold move to elevate its men's hockey program to Division I status in 1998.

"Bemidji State University hockey has superb support from its alumni, friends and fans; we're moving into an elite college hockey facility in 2010; and we have a strong, nationally-competitive Division I program."

"We are a university the WCHA will be proud to call its newest member."

The last three years, often times, have been like a dream of a different sort for the BSU men's hockey coaching staff -- more like a nightmare. Just a short time ago BSU was in the middle of budget cuts that called the future of the hockey program into question.

The CHA was on the verge of dissolving, leaving the Beavers without a league in which to play.

The whole event center idea was being hotly debated in the community.

As a result it was no easy task to get potential recruits to even listen to BSU representatives. No one could even give a definite answer to the question if there'd even be a hockey program in the future.

They were dark times indeed.

"Those were the toughest two to three years of my life," Serratore admitted. "It was a major roller-coaster ride. But all along, the coaching staff and all the great supporters of the program were able to stay focused and remain positive. We always believed people would do the right thing -- and BSU in the WCHA is the right thing."

"This program extends way beyond the university. If not for the tremendous out-pouring of support from our alumni, our fans and the community none of this would have happened. I am very happy for all the people who stayed patient and continued their support -- it's great to see them get rewarded. All their hard work, passion and patience paid off.

"We've earned this."

Being in the WCHA and playing in an elite facility will elevate the university and community to another level.

"We will now be affiliated with the best in the country." Serratore reported. "Look at what we were able to accomplish this spring. Now we'll be able to expose the university and the community to the most highly competitive and elite level of college hockey in the nation week after week. Each game fans will be able to see future NHL players compete; more NHL players will be playing for BSU as well."

Serratore reported the future is going to be exciting, but also a lot of work.

"The next challenge is learning how to compete; we've elevated the program to the next level," he said. "It's one thing playing these teams from time to time in a nonconference situation. When you're playing them for points every weekend it's a whole different deal."

"We need to field a competitive team at this new level. That challenge is very exciting for our staff and fans."

"We've talked about it as a staff -- it's like we all have a new job. It'll be a different type of challenge."

Starting today the BSU coaching staff will be able to pick up the phone and talk to recruits who they never would have attempted to recruit in the past.

"Now when you call, you feel the excitement in their voices," Serratore reported. "We're not going to always get them, but we'll be in the running -- the door will be open. This will allow us to recruit some younger kids and possibly more from Minnesota.

"Will it still be difficult? Sure. But we're up to the challenge."

To be certain Friday's announcement from the WCHA was a watershed moment for BSU, the community and the region. Without a doubt it's going to be wild ride.

BSU and the Bemidji community have just been put on the map in a major way. Personally, I couldn't be more happy or proud.

The whole situation may be best summed up by a quote from BSU assistant coach Bert Gilling. It's something he said after the Beavers defeated Cornell to advance to the Frozen Four.

After all the hugs and handshakes and tears, Gilling looked at me and said:

"There's just something special about this program ..."

Indeed there is.

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