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Support for BSU entry into WCHA expressed

State Labor and Industry Commissioner Steve Sviggum, left, mugs for a camera with Bemidji Woolen Mills owner Bill Batchelder and Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann after groundbreaking ceremonies Friday for the Bemidji Regional Event Center. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Shortly after ground was broken for Bemidji State's new hockey home, a parade of politicians lined up to pressure a visiting WCHA official about the school's entry into the elite league.

Friday's groundbreaking for the Bemidji Regional Event Center, Bemidji State's upcoming NCAA Frozen Four trip to Washington, D.C., and the Beavers' "potential" entry into the WCHA is the "perfect storm," state Labor and Industry Commissioner Steve Sviggum said during a luncheon celebrating the event center construction start.

"I did some minimal background research," Sviggum told WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod, who sat in the front row of tables in a packed Hampton Inn & Suites convention hall. "I understand in reading what the papers -- Washington Post, New York Times, ESPN, Minneapolis/St. Paul papers -- have got to write about Bemidji.

"I have been reading about the difficulty in your decision," he added, referring to BSU being the 11th school should the WCHA rule favorably, creating an unbalanced league. "And we understand that. But my minimal research told me that the Big Ten has 11 teams."

That got a hoot from the crowd and a smile from McLeod, who with University of North Dakota faculty representative Sue Jeno was making a site visit to Bemidji on Friday.

"I don't know if that's precedence or not -- it certainly suffixes in my book," Sviggum said.

Sviggum, who also read a congratulatory letter from Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said that no longer is talk of the first 16th seed to make the Frozen Four, but the expectation is that Bemidji State will win.

By the way, I hope that they don't meet the Badgers," he said referring to a WCHA team. "Oh, they aren't there, are they? Hopefully, in the first game, they won't meet the Sioux. What, the Sioux is not there? At least they can fly out with the Gophers, right?"

"Go Beavers!" Sviggum said, as no WCHA teams are in the Frozen Four.

Sviggum read Pawlenty's letter that the event center "will serve as a hub of social, cultural and recreational events in north-central Minnesota. It will also generate significant revenue for the local economy and create many jobs."

And Sviggum, a former House speaker, reiterated his push to name the event center "R.H. 'Bob' Peters Ice Sheet," after the legendary Bemidji State men's hockey coach.

"Frankly, I was thinking about lobbying efforts, so Mr. Commissioner, why not now?" Minnesota Assistant Majority Leader Taryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, asked McLeod after saying the effort to build an event center pulled the community together, all in support of BSU's national title run.

Citing persistence and perseverance, Clark deadpanned to McLeod, "It's a matter of time?" for BSU's entry to the WCHA.

Sen. Dave Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, who played college hockey for Denver University, another WCHA team, reminded the gathering they were there to highlight the groundbreaking ceremonies for the event center.

Special thanks went to Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, who chairs the Senate Capital Investment Committee which last year found monies for five such centers and hockey arenas around the state.

Also credited were local lawmakers Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, and former House Assistant Majority Leader Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, and his predecessor, Rep. Doug Fuller, R-Bemidji, who wore a BSU hockey jersey on the House floor -- the same one Sviggum wore Friday.

"You got this thing after many, many tries," Tomassoni said. "You deserve a whole lot of credit. ... Persistence is a really good word."

He cited the trips Bemidjians took to the State Capitol with red-and-black sweaters to lobby for the project. "Start digging and putting people to work."

Many times along the way the project was almost derailed, said Olson. "Thank you for making me so proud of this community, proud of my hometown, proud of my college, proud of the Beavers, proud of my community. You always stand together when we have a project that needs getting done."

Olson read a letter from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., that the "Beaver story is one of dedication and determination and something that no hockey fan will soon forget."

BSU President Jon Quistgaard called it a new era for BSU hockey. "Think where we have been with 13 national championships, getting into the Sweet 16 and now into the Frozen Four. I'm more optimistic ... I think this is just the beginning in the evolution of Beaver hockey. It's now a new era, and a new era for Bemidji State University hockey."

Quistgaard called it a dream that became reality. "It's all kind of a swirl right now."

The new event center is a partnership, he said, as it not only provides a new venue for Bemidji State hockey, but also for it fans who will come to Bemidji and stay in its hotels and eat in its restaurants. "This is just the beginning of what Bemidji is going to continue to become."

The Bemidji City Council had the wherewithall to forge ahead with the event center in the face of adversity, Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann said.

It took "a bold movement forward to make this a reality in our community," he said. Since 1992, the idea of a convention center or community center had risen and died several times.

"Bemidji Leads!" made a regional event center one of its destiny drivers and the effort began anew, Lehmann said. "A groundswell of support started happening in the community ... We showed unity as a community to go down there (the Legislature) and do that.

"We accomplished something that everyone one of us can be very, very proud of," he said. "Something that is going to serve generations to come in this community."

Lehmann said that "it has been quite a struggle over the past few years -- we have a lot of people who were the naysayers, who didn't want to see this happen. But it did, through hard work and diligence on the council's part that we haven't given the council the recognition that it deserves."

To end the program, Lehmann told the audience, "You did great."