Two coaches from Northeastern Minnesota are returning to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association with the announcement Friday that Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha are joining the league in 2010-11.
Tom Serratore, 45, of Coleraine was an assistant at St. Cloud State for two years before taking over at Bemidji State in 2001-02, while Dean Blais, 58, of International Falls was head coach at North Dakota for a decade through 2004 and was named Nebraska-Omaha coach two weeks ago.
A nearly unanimous vote of WCHA faculty representatives Friday afternoon concluded a busy week of negotiating for commissioner Bruce McLeod, the lead player in the league's first expansion since Minnesota State-Mankato entered in 1999-2000. The league will grow from 10 to 12 members.
"We're very humbled to be part of the WCHA, and to be among the other Division I teams in Minnesota is an honor," said Serratore, who played at Bemidji State. "It's been a long haul for us, but we've hung in there."
Bemidji State badly needed a new conference. The Beavers are part of the four-team College Hockey America, which will dissolve after the 2009-10 season because of dwindling membership. Before Thursday, Bemidji State was the only school to officially apply to the WCHA after a moratorium on expansion was lifted in January.
Omaha was comfortable in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association after 10 years, but was the main target of the WCHA, which sought to add two schools to allow easier scheduling.
There was talk that Blais was promised a move to the WCHA if he took the Omaha job.
"It didn't really matter to me which league [Omaha] played in, they're both good, but deep down, I wanted to be in the WCHA," said Blais, who won two Division I titles at North Dakota.
While Bemidji State wanted in, Omaha needed some convincing and some perks, which were offered by McLeod in talks that began in a trip to Omaha on May 29.
It's believed negotiations centered on three points -- a reduced fee to join the league, an immediate share of playoff revenue and competing in the WCHA by 2010-11
When Minnesota State-Mankato joined the WCHA, it paid the league $40,000 per year for three years, and didn't share in WCHA playoff revenue during that time, according to the Mankato Free Press. WCHA teams each earned about $91,000 from the 2009 league playoffs, said McLeod.
Bemidji State, in particular, was pushing to begin WCHA play as soon as possible.
Bemidji State wasn't in favor of playing an independent and likely weakened schedule in 2010-11, the same season it moves into the new Bemidji Regional Events Center.
"I'm excited, happy and proud about the future of our league with these additions," said McLeod, a former Minnesota Duluth player and athletic director. "It took a lot of work and sometimes it's a small miracle when things work out. In my heart I believe it's the best situation for all of us."
McLeod, however, wouldn't specify an expansion membership fee, or when the new additions would share in postseason revenue, or if the terms were different for each school.
The expansion process seemed to be stalled after a conference call with WCHA athletic directors Wednesday night, but picked up steam Thursday with the lobbying help of St. Cloud State athletic director Morris Kurtz, said McLeod. The ADs were called again Thursday night and agreed in principle with the negotiated deal. Faculty representatives voted 9-0 in favor of expansion, with one abstention.
"We needed to do something to solve the plight of Bemidji State, and geographically this was a good fit and philosophically a good fit," said Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi, chair of the WCHA structure committee.
While Omaha's Trev Alberts, hired as athletic director six weeks ago, said the school was thrilled to be part of the WCHA, the Central Collegiate Hockey Association wasn't taking the news well.
Commissioner Tom Anastos said in a statement: "We are disappointed to hear of UNO's decision to leave the CCHA as they have been a very good member of our league. We have an excellent league, with a very strong membership, and we will continue to focus all of our attention on being a great conference and a leader in helping to shape the future of college hockey."
Omaha tied for seventh in the CCHA in 2008-09 and was 15-17-8. After the season, Alberts moved Duluth native Mike Kemp from coach to associate athletic director and hired Blais. Bemidji State won the 2009 College Hockey America regular season and playoff titles, and advanced to the Frozen Four for the first time, losing to Miami of Ohio in the semifinals. Bemidji State finished 20-16-1. The women's WCHA already has Bemidji State as a member.
With Omaha leaving the CCHA, it's believed the league will replace the Mavericks with Alabama-Huntsville of College Hockey America. Huntsville has applied for CCHA membership and received a site visit by the league earlier this month.
UMD has played Bemidji State every year since the Beavers moved to Division I in 1999-2000. The Bulldogs hold a 13-7 mark during that period and are scheduled to face Bemidji State next season, on Jan. 22-23, in a home-and-home series. UMD last met Nebraska-Omaha in October of 2001 in the Maverick Stampede, beating the Mavericks 5-2 in Omaha.
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