Paul and Babe step aside for college hockey
BEMIDJI -- Just 1.6 miles down the road from the Bemidji Regional Event Center stand giant statues of folklore legends Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, tourist attractions here since 1937.
Paul Bunyan towers 18 feet tall and Babe is 10 feet by 23 feet, yet they were dwarfed Friday night by a hockey puck, a small circle of vulcanized rubber an inch high, 3 inches across, weighing about 6 ounces.
Puck-mania, folks, has grabbed the spotlight of a mesmerized city.
The legend of Bemidji State hockey took a Paul Bunyan-sized step when the North Dakota Fighting Sioux met the BSU Beavers in the first men's game played in the 4,210-seat arena.
The series was sold out for a long time, an impossible ticket to beg, borrow or steal, commanding $200 or more from scalpers.
Yes, indeed, Bemidji is hungry for big-time hockey. It arrived in the form of the powerful Sioux, ranked No. 2 nationally, and under the umbrella of the prestigious WCHA.
"Bemidji reeks of hockey," is how BSU coach Tom Serratore puts it.
How fitting that two college hockey giants just over 100 miles apart played the dedication game in the arena bearing the name of hockey icon Bob Peters. He coached at both schools, but won 13 national championships at Bemidji State. All came at lower NCAA or NAIA levels than the seven NCAA Division I championships won by the Sioux.
That doesn't matter here. Beaver pride runs deep. They are as button-busting proud of their 13 lower-level national titles as UND fans are of the seven Fighting Sioux crowns won against the nation's heavyweights.
There was a time when even Peters, a humble but proud man who left UND with visions of building his own program in Bemidji, never thought he'd see this day come.
Years ago, I'd ask him if he thought Bemidji State would ever elevate its hockey program to the NCAA Division I level.
"When fish start swimming backward in Lake Bemidji," he would tell me.
Every fish in that lake is motoring in reverse these days because the big show has arrived.
How successful that show will be remains to be seen. It's one thing to dominate a weaker College Hockey America league, as the Beavers did, and make four trips to the NCAA tournament in the last six years.
It's a far tougher challenge to succeed in the grind of the WCHA and advance out of it to the NCAA tournament.
If Serratore can build the Beavers into a national power on the Division I level in the ultra-competitive WCHA, they'll be erecting a statue of him right next to Paul and Babe.
It would be foolish to think that Serratore can't get the Beavers to that level some day. He's a tremendous coach, an astute recruiter, a former Beaver player with a deep passion for his alma mater.
He got the Beavers to the Frozen Four two seasons ago as a No. 16 seed when traditional powers UND and Minnesota, among others, didn't make it. So he knows what a great Cinderella story reads and feels like.
While Bemidji State might resemble the Little Engine That Could that the Minnesota Twins used to be, the dawning of a new league and a beautiful rink at least puts them on the rails for success.
Foss, who reported on sports for 36 years for the Grand Forks Herald until his retirement, writes a weekly column from October through April. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (701) 772-9272.