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Sanford Center sizzles in first year of hockey

Saturday night ended the first season in the Sanford Center, and when all the figures are added up, the effort put into the facility is a win-win for both Bemidji State University and the city of Bemidji.

The regular season for the BSU men's Division I Western Collegiate Hockey Association hockey team ended Saturday night with the season's sixth sellout crowd. The Beavers hosted Minnesota, long a WCHA hockey powerhouse and the team metro Minnesota likes to follow.

After Friday night's 3-3 overtime tie, Bemidji State proved it could skate with the best of them. BSU defenseman Brad Hunt sent the game into overtime with a shot that worked up the slot through a crowd past Gopher goalie Kent Patterson.

Saturday night's game also was a sellout, and another hard-fought game won by Minnesota 3-2 in overtime.

"This has been a wonderful season," says R.H. "Bob" Peters, the long-time former BSU hockey coach instrumental in the battle to build the Sanford Center. The rink is named after him.

"The fans have been great, and the games well attended," Peters told me Friday night while visiting the press box, where FSN was broadcasting live, joining Lakeland Public Television, which has broadcast all home games.

"The team might have done as well as we'd like, but this is the first year in the WCHA, the toughest league in the nation," he said.

The Beavers finished the regular season 12-17-5 overall and 8-15-5 in the WCHA. "They were really never blown out of any game," Peters said.

But the key is that the people came -- all year long.

"With 16 home games, we had six capacity games and will have more than 61,000 attending," Peters rattled off without a thought. The six capacity games were series with North Dakota, St. Cloud State and Minnesota. Capacity is 4,373.

And he wasn't far off on total attendance, at 62,181 for 16 home games.

"Even the lower attendance games were more than we ever saw in the John Glas Fieldhouse," Peters added. The Glas' capacity was 2,399 seats, and the lowest attendance this season was 3,091 against Alaska Anchorage.

And the 62,000 attendees to Beaver hockey games made a difference in the community, as bars and restaurants became crowded on game nights. Many bars and restaurants offered shuttle buses to the Sanford Center, drumming up business before and after the game.

"We are seeing lots of people from throughout the region, including season ticket holders from all across the region," Peters said. He and athletic staff and hockey coaches gave many presentations across the region, telling people the Beaver hockey team is their team, also.

Apparently it worked, as often the city's motels were full as well on game weekends. When BSU hosted St. Cloud State, there were a number of other winter activities going on in Bemidji, and some from St. Cloud had to travel to Grand Rapids or Crookston to find a room.

Two things are helping BSU hockey recruiting -- the fact that BSU is in the WCHA and the new Sanford Center, he said. "We're doing really well in recruiting, with the Sanford Center and the WCHA as selling points.

"This is a destination city -- when the hotel attached to the Sanford Center is done, we will be the only WCHA city with a hotel attached to the rink," Peters said. "And where else is there the lake and all the trails around it? And a marina?"

The Sanford Center, now with WCHA hockey, has to be doing something for the Bemidji economy. BSU previously had done a so-so job in marketing, but now it seemed as though nearly everyone in the stands Friday night wore some sort of BSU hockey jersey, sweatshirt or T-shirt.

Now that hockey is over for the season at the Sanford Center, emphasis must be placed on other community activities for the center. It seems busy with meetings, weddings and small dinners, but it needs events that will make use of the arena floor.

A rodeo is upcoming, but a concert or two is needed as well as trade shows and conventions.

But it seems, at least for hockey, that the community has readily embraced the Sanford Center as a welcome venue, one they are willing to support by attending hockey games and buying the Beaver merchandise.

They also help the community by staying in our motels and eating in our restaurants.

My interest in hockey goes way back, to when I was doing sports information work during college at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, another WCHA school.

The WCHA brings a class act of highly respected college hockey, And now BSU has joined those ranks in style, which can only bring good things to the community as well.

Brad Swenson is the Pioneer's Opinion Page and political editor.