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Bemidji State hockey travels the country in news of WCHA expansion

Bemidji State's Matt Read skates ahead of North Dakota's Ben Blood during a Jan. 2, 2009 game at John Glas Fieldhouse. Pioneer File Photo/Eric Stromgren

News of Friday's Western Collegiate Hockey Association membership expansion with Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha in the 2010-11 season traveled quickly throughout the state, region and country.

In Minnesota, Bemidji State hockey reached the top corner of the Star Tribune's sports page. The Beaver logo with the headline "Bemidji State and UNO are added to the WCHA" appeared above stories on the Timberwolves draft, the NHL draft and the Minnesota Twins.

It was also top sports news for Forum Communications Co. sports pages, the parent company of the Bemidji Pioneer.

The Grand Forks Herald, which covers the University of North Dakota, placed the news as the biggest story of the day at the top of the sports page with the large headline "Welcome to the WCHA." Also included were graphics: a timeline of WCHA history and demographic information on Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's sports section placed the news on the bottom of its front page with the headline "Omaha, Bemidji voted in for 2010-11."

The Duluth News Tribune, which covers the University of Minnesota-Duluth, also ran Friday's news as the main story on its sports front page. Sports writer Kevin Pates focused his story on two northern Minnesota coaches returning to the WCHA.

Tom Serratore was once an assistant at St. Cloud State and International Falls native Dean Blais, the current coach at Nebraska-Omaha, coached for a decade at North Dakota until 2004.

"The CCHA is a great league and I wasn't really sure where we'd end up," Blais said in Friday's conference call. "But deep down I have a love for the WCHA and I'm happy to be back."

Blais won two Division I titles at North Dakota before leaving for brief stints in the NHL and USHL.

In the St. Cloud Times, the Gannett paper that covers St. Cloud State University, sports writer Kevin Allenspach's story on the announcement centered on the diplomatic tactics of SCSU Athletic Director Morris Kurtz.

WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod acknowledged that at one point late in the process, negotiations between the league and UNO bogged down, to the point where it appeared a deal may not get done.

That's when Kurtz stepped in to broker a deal with UNO Associate Athletic Director Don Leahy.

"When things looked bleak (Kurtz) stepped up and got us back on track," McLeod said in the conference call. "I think we may have to start calling him 'Morris the Deal Maker.' Cooler heads prevailed and then things progressed fairly quickly."

Bemidji State was also part of media reports in Colorado, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, a number of online college hockey news sites, a handful of fan blogs and on Twitter.

Mike Lucas, who covers Wisconsin sports at the Madison Capital Times, tweeted: "Bemidji State Beavers and Wisconsin have something in common: 'Bob' was greatest puck coach. Bob Peters in Bemidji and Badger Bob Johnson."

Todd Milewski, a writer for United States College Hockey Online tweeted: "But seriously, the WCHA got this one right. Wouldn't have been right to turn the other way while Bemidji faded away."

But not everyone was happy. WCHA officials characterized BSU's and UNO's move to the WCHA as good for college hockey.

A sportswriter on the conference call challenged that generalization and asked: "The CCHA lost a team ... the WCHA's gain is the CCHA's loss and how is that supposed to be good for college hockey?"

The writer also cited a statement issued by CCHA Commissioner Tom Anastos.

"We are disappointed to hear of UNO's decision to leave the CCHA as they have been a very good member of our league. We have an excellent league, with a very strong membership, and we will continue to focus all of our attention on being a great conference and a leader in helping to shape the future of college hockey," Anastos said in a statement.

McLeod did not waver.

"Sometimes I have to look out for what's best in college hockey in general," he said. "We did not want to look at losing another program."

While the WCHA courted Nebraska-Omaha, McLeod said "we can't tell UNO what to do" and expressed hope that the CCHA would accept the last College Hockey America orphan, Alabama-Huntsville, into the CCHA.

CCHA officials visited the Huntsville campus earlier this summer and are expected to look at filling the void in their league sometime in August.

In the Anchorage Daily News, which covers Alaska-Anchorage hockey, sports writer Beth Brag wrote in her lead paragraph: "The UAA hockey team has two new conference opponents, neither of them from Fairbanks."

Alaska-Fairbanks was considered to be a team in the running for WCHA expansion, but McLeod said discussions never became serious as UNO was always the primary target.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, which covers Fairbanks in the CCHA, had a story about losing league traveling partner Nebraska-Omaha.

The News-Miner also noted that Omaha was the only CCHA school to subsidize transportation costs to and from games in Alaska.

In Omaha, there's a buzz around UNO hockey again following the hiring of new Athletic Director Trev Alberts, Blais weeks later and now acceptance into the WCHA.

Omaha World-Herald writer Rob White outlined the reasons why the WCHA will benefit UNO in an article "WCHA has passion, prestige and power."

In White's article, former UNO coach and current Associate Athletic Director Mike Kemp said about the WCHA: "The conference isn't just what it is today. It's what it has been since 1951. It's one for the ages."

And it's now the home to Bemidji State hockey.