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Frozen Four: Former coach Peters revels in NCAA run

Tradition never graduates.

So states one of the mottos for the Bemidji State University men's hockey program.

Beaver hockey has been built on tradition - and that tradition has led to the recent success of the Beaver hockey team, according to former coach R.H. "Bob" Peters.

"Tradition is huge here. We cultivate that," said Peters, who led the Beavers for 34 seasons. "When you play for the Bemidji hockey team, you play for us forever - and you're never forgotten."

Peters will be among Bemidji fans cheering the Beavers on as they compete today in the Frozen Four at 4 p.m. against Miami (Ohio) in Washington, D.C., at the Verizon Center.

The Beavers were seeded last in a 16-team field two weeks ago as they defeated No. 2 overall seed Notre Dame and then Cornell University to earn a berth in the Frozen Four.

The Beavers' defeat of Notre Dame was listed nationally as one of the greatest all-time upsets in collegiate hockey.

"Those ... boys are standing on the shoulders of the boys who played before them," Peters said, "and the players we have in the future will stand on the shoulders of this year's team."

An International Falls student, Ed Johnson, in 1947 asked BSU administration why there was no hockey program at the school. Bemidji then had just one of 11 indoor rinks in the state of Minnesota.

Johnson suggested that the school start a hockey team - and administrators agreed.

Initial players wore old football jerseys while Johnson obtained used goalie pads from the International Falls hockey association.

"That all ties into the tradition here," Peters said. "Tradition is the answer, the reason why we have been successful here. To this day, that all carries the momentum for us."

Peters was hired to replace former coach Vic Weber, who coached from 1959-64 and 1965-66. Peters coached from 1966-2001, when current head coach Tom Serratore, a former Beaver player, took over.

"We've had three coaches in 50 years," Peters said. "That tells you how we have tradition and strength. We have continuity."

Peters was lured to BSU in 1966, when then-President Harry Bangsberg convinced him to leave his assistant coaching job at the University of North Dakota and come to Bemidji to coach the Beavers.

Did he ever regret leaving UND?

"Never, never," he said. "This is home, here."

Bangsberg, Peters recalled, talked to him about how hockey is part of the culture in Bemidji and throughout Minnesota.

"He did mention eventually moving the program up as the program matured, to even a DI status," Peters said. "He was a visionary."

The John Glas Fieldhouse didn't then exist; the team played on an outdoor rink. The funding for the Glas had been secured, but the arena wouldn't be complete until the 1967-68 season.

The Beavers opened play in the Glas against a team called the Minnesota Nationals, comprised of potential Olympic-caliber players. The Beavers lost by one goal.

Peters led the Beavers through multiple divisions and won 13 national championships.

The first came in 1968, which started a four-year run of national championships in the NAIA, or small-school, division.

But, Peters, said, that division didn't make the Beavers any less talented. The team included future Olympians and U.S. National team members.

"That team consisted of Division I players without a question," he said.

In the 1969-70 season, several of the Beaver players also were playing on the U.S. National team. Schedules were adjusted with assistance from the administration and professors in order to accommodate the players' needs.

That year, the national team had to qualify for the 1972 Olympics with a win in Romania.

But, the Beavers made it to the national tournament that season. With key players in Romania, the team played the first round without them. And won.

In the finals, Bemidji - then reunited with its stars - faced Lake Superior State and won 7-4. Lake Superior's coach then was Ron Mason, who holds the record for most wins for a college hockey coach.

"He totally agrees - both teams were DI hockey teams, without a doubt," Peters said.

Up until the time BSU went Division I, Peters was able to utilize junior varsity teams to help build up the program.

"It was a good developmental program," Peters said. "It particularly helped in the development of a goalie."

JV teams played about one game a week, and those players eventually became varsity players and captains.

"That's really one of the ways we got going," Peters said, "how we got the program established."

Under Peters, the BSU hockey team won seven NAIA national championships. The team captured its only Division III title in 1986, two years after winning its first Division II title in 1984.

The 1984 title capped off an amazing, unbeaten season for Bemidji as the team went 31-0-0. Those wins were part of a 43-game winning streak that lasted from November 1983 to January 1985.

The Beavers won three consecutive Division II championships from 1993 to 1995 and then another in 1997. That year's title was the last national championship team, to date anyway.

But Division II hockey was in trouble. The division was going to fold after the 1998-99 season; existing DII teams had a choice: move up to Division I or down to Division III.

"We (couldn't) go down, because the entire athletic department would have to move down," Peters recalled.

So, the athletic department and administration chose to move up to Division I - and also chose to start a Division I women's hockey team.

Peters' last seasons with the Beavers, from 1999 to 2001, were difficult in terms of win-loss records. The 2000-2001 team was the first in school history to play a complete Division I schedule and finished 4-26-4.

"Those two years were difficult; we were overmatched," Peters said. "But there was no way around it; it was a huge transitional period."

But those players who comprised the first years of Division I program built the foundation for what the team has now become, Peters noted.

Peters was unable to make the trip to Michigan last month to watch the Beavers in the NCAA regional tournament, but he is in D.C. today to see the Beavers make their first Frozen Four appearance.

"I'm not surprised," he said of the Beavers' postseason run.

Peters recalled the games BSU played against UND in January. The Beavers ultimately lost 4-3 in Bemidji and 4-3 in overtime in Grand Forks, N.D.

"That was, to me, an indication of how capable we were of playing against top-ranked teams," Peters said.

And as he looked forward then to the NCAA regional, Peters thought that if the Beavers repeated their performance, they might turn some heads.

"If Bemidji played in the Midwest Regional as they played against UND, I thought they would raise a great deal of havoc in the Midwest Regional - and they did," Peters said, adding that the Beavers won their two games with "clear-cut victories."

"They're legitimate," he said.

Peters stopped short of a prediction of how the Frozen Four will play - but he has faith in the Beavers:

"If the way they played in the Midwest Regional is the quality effort they have in the Frozen Four, we shall once again raise havoc with the opponents."