Bemidji State University, welcome to the biggest stage of all.
After years of agonizing over the future of the program, BSU men's hockey dreams were fulfilled Friday afternoon as Bemidji State was admitted into the Western Collegiate Hockey Association along with the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
BSU and UNO will enter the league for the 2010-11 season. That means a seamless transition for BSU. The Beavers will play the final season in College Hockey America for 2009-10, then move into the WCHA the following year -- just when the program's new home, the Bemidji Regional Event Center, will open.
"This is truly a watershed day for the WCHA," league Commissioner Bruce McLeod said during a telephone news conference with WCHA officials and officials from both schools. "I'm excited, happy and proud. I'm happy for all the parties involved and college hockey in general. It's a win-win situation for all of us."
BSU head coach Tom Serratore said, "It's an honor and we are very humbled with joining the WCHA -- the most prestigious college hockey conference of all. To be in the same league as the other teams in Minnesota is very special.
"We're all very happy -- happy for the university, the alumni, the community and the region. There's also a great sense of relief, it's like a 200 pound monkey has been lifted off our back."
BSU Athletic Director Rick Goeb said BSU is both grateful and honored to now be a member of the WCHA.
"We're very excited about the opportunities joining the league brings forward," he said. "The hockey program has experienced a great deal of success over the years and we are now very much looking forward to the future."
Bemidji State applied for WCHA membership in March, but the league in April put off a decision in order to seek a 12th member to join BSU in the 10-team league. McLeod was authorized to negotiate with the league's first choice, UNO.
Terms of admittance were not revealed as McLeod declined to answer directly and continually stated he did not want to get into specifics. He did say negotiations included items such as the league entrance fees and revenue sharing.
McLeod acknowledged that at one point late in the process, negotiations between the league and UNO bogged down, to the point where it appeared a deal may not get done.
At that point, McLeod said, St. Cloud State University Athletic Director Morris Kurtz became heavily involved and was able to broker a deal with UNO Associate Athletic Director Don Leahy.
"When things looked bleak (Kurtz) stepped up and got us back on track," McLeod said. "I think we may have to start calling him 'Morris the Deal Maker.' Cooler heads prevailed and then things progressed fairly quickly."
While getting the deal done was often times an arduous process, McLeod said, in the end all the member schools of the WCHA, along with the two new additions, came together to make it happen.
"In the end, all the member schools looked beyond their own self-interest and beyond their own backyard," McLeod said. "I'm very proud of how they handled it."
The vote to admit the two teams was 9-0 with one abstention. "The abstention included a note that said there wasn't a problem with either school, but with how the process was handled," McLeod said.
WCHA focus went to UNO because of the geographic fit with the league and the revenue potential since the Nebraska school plays in a 14,000-seat facility.
While the process for BSU to join the league has been one that was years in the making, it was not the same for UNO. However, there were other issues for the Nebraska school as UNO had a strong relationship with its former conference the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
"Our goal is to build a program to the elite level," said UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts. "We think we can best do that in the WCHA. I want everyone to know how proud we are to be a member of the conference that represents the very best in college hockey."
Now that the WCHA is a 12-team league, the next task will be to figure out scheduling. McLeod said five or six different models of league scheduling for 12 teams are being considered and no final resolution has been reached.
However, in terms of league playoffs, McLeod gave a hint of what the future may hold: A WCHA playoff format that includes all 12 teams with first-round games played at the site of the highest seed is likely.
Then six teams would advance to play at Xcel Center in St. Paul with two games Thursday, two games Friday and a championship game Saturday.
"Maybe we'll call it the Final Five, plus one," McLeod said with a chuckle.
He did say there will be no division scheduling.
McLeod was asked why BSU would be such a good fit in the WCHA.
"It's a very storied program," he said, "that has a lot of accomplishments at a lot of different levels. They have a new building that is being constructed and have done everything we have asked of them through the process.
"Plus, you don't have to spend much time there to know it's hockey country," he added.