Giving a stick salute to a frantic Bemidji State cheering section at the conclusion of a game, win or lose, is a deep-seeded tradition for the Beaver men's hockey team.
But the one Thursday night at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., was very special.
The Beavers had just lost to Miami University 4-1 in the opening semifinal of the 2009 NCAA Frozen Four. An incredible run that began nearly two months ago - through the College Hockey America regular season into the CHA Tournament, on to the NCAA Midwest Regional and finally to the Frozen Four in the nation's capitol -- had come to an end.
It wasn't the way the BSU players or coaches wanted it to end, especially not the six seniors. They were mad, frustrated and emotionally spent after a tough battle. They had every reason to feel that way; it's only natural when a team loses a big game. And none have been bigger than this one.
And yet there were the Bemidji fans, many whom had traveled nearly 30 hours by bus to get to the game, cheering wildly for their team ... their team. The BSU players slowly skated to the end of the rink where the fans had gathered, hundreds of fans. The team lined up and slowly raised their sticks once, twice and finally three times -- rapping the ice each time.
Thank you for all the support, the BSU players were saying.
"This has been something very special to be a part of," said BSU senior captain Cody Bostock. "You'd like to thank everyone out there. Unfortunately, tonight we came out on the wrong end, but it's been a good run - the time of a lifetime and something I'll never forget."
No ... thank you, Beavers. And we won't forget it, either.
The ripple effect provided by this group of 25 players on the university, the Bemidji community, the region and the state will not be forgotten, or fully understood, for a long time.
It's become a tired cliché to say that sports can be a metaphor for life. But it describes the Beavers and their incredible run perfectly - the value of hard work, overcoming adversity, facing challenges head on and succeeding against all odds. The Bemidji State men's hockey team did it all and more.
Their run to the Frozen Four - the pinnacle of the U.S. college hockey world - has been the domain of elite programs for decades. No 16 seeds, like the Beavers, had never advanced to the Frozen Four. No team outside of the "Big Four" conferences had ever achieved such a goal.
Just look at how the Beavers got there: defeating longtime rival Alabama-Huntsville 4-1 in the CHA tournament opener and beating Robert Morris University 3-2 in overtime in an epic game to claim the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Once at the Midwest Regional, the Beavers faced Notre Dame, the second-ranked team in the nation, a team that was statistically the best defensive unit in the land. The Beavers not only won, but won convincingly.
That put the Beavers in the Midwest Regional final against Cornell, another elite team with a storied tradition. The Beavers won that one 4-1 in a hugely emotional game, achieving a goal that few imagined possible - Bemidji State in the Frozen Four.
The Beavers immediately became the darlings of the national media and the college hockey world. Bemidji State merchandise went flying off the shelves quicker than a Tyler Scofield wrist shot. Hordes of big-time media came calling - the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, CBS Sports and NHL.com, just to name a few. It was overwhelming.
The value of the publicity for the university and the Bemidji community could not be measured. People across the nation found out about Bemidji State and our town, many for the first time.
But most important, the success of the Bemidji State men's hockey team brought the community together like hasn't happened in a long, long time.
The community debate over the Bemidji Regional Event Center has been heated and divisive for a long time. A few people have continued to call it nothing more than a glorified new rink for the BSU hockey program - as if that were a bad thing.
Well, everyone should now know just what a huge resource we have in the Bemidji State hockey program. We've all seen firsthand the kind of major effect the Beavers can have. The type of publicity that could never bought, the effect on the local economy, the fellowship of bringing the community together to cheer for a common goal, a huge sense of pride - we now know that's what Beavers hockey can provide.
It's real; it happened before our eyes. And hopefully it will be happening for many years to come. As head coach Tom Serratore said, "why not Bemidji?" Why not indeed.
Before Thursday's game while sitting in press row an observer was asked if Bemidji could win the game, if the Beavers had a chance. Before the observer could respond, another person, this one from Washington, D.C., answered ...
"They have already won."
Yes, they have. Yes, we have.