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Bemidji State men's hockey: Coleraine brothers and connections link tournament

"In this episode of the "Puckfather", the brothers Serratore achieve the ultimate goal in college hockey, each advancing teams to the NCAA Tournament as head coach.

"It is a compelling story, for in the world of college hockey it's unheard of to have two brothers who are even head coaches of two separate teams, let alone achieve the ultimate goal of advancing their teams to the biggest college hockey tournament in the nation...stay tuned for this week's episode ..."

Honestly, hearing about the vast web of connections that link the college hockey community together is like watching an episode of "The Sopranos." Coaches chuckle at the comparison, but when thinking about it further see the similarities.

Consider just the Bemidji State vs. Notre Dame game at the NCAA Midwest Regional in Grand Rapids, Mich. Saturday. The Serratore brothers' long time friend, Minnesota coach Don Lucia, attended Notre Dame ...after graduating from Notre Dame and beginning his coaching career at Alaska-Fairbanks, one of Lucia's first recruiting trips and at home visits was to Coleraine to speak with the family of, you guessed it, Tom of Lucia's former assistants, Mike Guentzel, now has a son playing at Notre Dame...Lucia and Frank Serratore were sitting around one night while both were recruiting at an all-star game; Lucia had been coach at Colorado College and heard about a head coach opening at Air Force; he suggested to Frank to consider it; Frank did, was hired and has been there for the last 11 years ...Tom Serratore went to Mankato State University before transferring to Bemidji State where he was heavily influenced by Bob Peters who helped launch the coaching careers of both Frank and Tom.

Need we go on? The point has been made - the college hockey world is built on connections that link coaches, programs, players, families and communities much like, well, you get the picture.

All kidding aside having the brothers Serratore as the head coaches of teams set to begin play in the NCAA Tournament is indeed an impressive deal. Not bad for a couple of guys from Deer River, Minn. who were supposed to be basketball players.

"We moved to Coleraine when I was in kindergarten and Frank was in seventh grade," Tom said. "My Dad was a basketball guy, so never really thought of playing hockey."

All that changed when the Serratore family moved into a hotbed of Northern Minnesota hockey. "We moved into a house three doors down from the Casey family," Tom said. "Their dad, Jim, was always a youth hockey coach and they had an outdoor rink. The more I hung around there, the more I found out about the game."

As a second grader Tom said he came home and announced he wanted to be a hockey player. "My dad was a little shocked," said Tom, "and he finally said it would be o.k., but he couldn't drive me all over the country to games. Jim Casey called and said he'd bring take me along. For the next four years he was my coach and I was with the Casey's all the time."

Frank also quit basketball and started playing at the same time, making his first appearance in organized hockey rather late, as a ninth grader. "He picked up some skates and pads, then immediately made the Bantam A team," said Tom. "He was a goalie, but had regular skates, so the coaches - Pecky Guyer and Dick White (grandfather of current UM player Patrick White) called my dad and said Frank needed goalie skates."

Greenway was coming off an amazing run at the time, winning state high school championships in 1967 and 68, then taking the consolation championship in 1969 (all while the legendary Mike Antonovich was playing).

"In Greenway, hockey was at a different level," Tom said. "We only lived for blocks from the arena and hockey was everything. As we continued to play, Mom and Dad were proud of us and supported us. But we were fortunate to have a family like the Casey's as well; we probably wouldn't have played hockey if not for them."

The Serratore brothers took vastly different routes to their current positions - Tom relatively quickly and Frank through a major journey. Tom began by coaching in high school for a couple years, and then went to St. Cloud State where he was an assistant coach and associate head coach. Then it was on to Bemidji State to take on the head coaching job after Peters retired.

Frank took a longer route: five years as coach in Austin, then Rochester, in the USHL, grad assistant at North Dakota under Gino Gasparini and assistant coaches Dean Blais and Cary Eades; USHL with the Omaha Lancers for one year, head coach at Denver University four years, International Hockey League with Minnesota Moose for two years and then the Manitoba Moose for a year; and then the conversation with Lucia about the Air Force job, where he has stayed the last 11 years.

"I really didn't get to know Frank too well while we were in high school," Lucia said with a chuckle. "Grand Rapids and Coleraine had that Hatfield and McCoy thing going on pretty strong then. It was a heated rivalry. A Grand Rapids was taking his life into his own hands when he crossed under that tressel bridge going into Coleraine."

It wasn't until both were coaching that their friendship blossomed. "I stay with Frank from time to time when I came down from Alaska on recruiting trips, back when he was in Rochester," Lucia said. "Our friendship just grew from there. Now, we're good friends and our wives have become good friends."

A common thread for both Serratore brothers, they say, is the experiences they both had with Peters at Bemidji State. "(Peters) had a huge influence on me," Frank said. "He was such a good teacher - most coaches would tell you how and so would Bob, but he also told you why. The foundation of my coaching philosophy is still built on principles of Bob Peters' system. He was a visionary, ahead of his time."

Tom agreed. "Both of us are BSU alums and that's very special," Tom said. "Both of us are an extension of Peters' philosophy. He's a big reason why we're both where we are."

Neither Serratore brother has had an easy go at the DI level. The brothers aren't a part of an elite college hockey program like Minnesota or North Dakota, or Boston University where support for the program is huge.

"Frank has a lot of limitations in recruiting at Air Force," Tom said. "The players have to be high achieving U.S. kids who have a major commitment level, since they agree to a three year service commitment after college is done. What he's done in that situation is remarkable."

Frank had similar words for his little brother. "I'm real proud of what (Tom) has been able to accomplish," said Frank. "I'm praying everything comes together and they find a home for the program. There aren't enough schools in the country that are truly committed to hockey. It would be very tough to lose one that has such a great history and that big commitment level."

Lucia reported he has a great deal of respect for both Frank and Tom. "I am very happy for both of them, getting their teams to the NCAA tournament," he said. "They both do a great job. This is the third time in a row for Frank and Air Force in the tournament. They've been close to breaking through. Same for Tom with BSU - they were very close to defeating Denver in 2005.

"They are hard working, committed guys who have gone out and found a niche in recruiting to get the guys their programs need to be successful. That's just great."

Air Force begins play in the NCAA Tournament tonight, taking on Michigan as part of the East Regional In Bridgeport, Conn. One night later, it's show time for the Beavers.