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Column: BSU men's hockey program transforms into major player 10 years after D-I transition

It was the most exciting of season openers for the Bemidji State men's hockey team on Oct. 14, 2000.

The Beavers had just jumped to the NCAA Division I level the previous year, amid more than a little controversy. The University had been forced into making a move with the athletic department though no choice of its own: The NCAA announced it would be disbanding DII hockey, the division in which the Beavers played.

That led to a complicated situation. Although there was a lot more involved, the decision basically came down to choosing between moving hockey to Division I and the rest of the teams to Division II, or moving the entire athletic department to Division III - which was seen by many as a major step backwards.

After a great deal of wrangling and hand wringing the decision was made - BSU hockey would join the Division I ranks.

In a move to support the decision which expanded Division I hockey in the state and show respect to legendary BSU coach R.H. "Bob" Peters who was in his final year behind the bench - the mighty University of Minnesota agreed to play Bemidji State at the John Glas Fieldhouse to open the 2000-2001 season.

It was Don Lucia's second year as head coach at Minnesota. The Golden Gophers - the standard bearer for the college hockey ranks in the State of Hockey - were just one year away from a historic run that resulted in back-to-back national championships.

From the moment the Gophers arrived in town it became very obvious why Minnesota was the premier team in the state and one of the elite programs in the nation. Everything about the Gophers exuded professionalism, class and character.

Watching the Golden Gophers go about their business left the local sporting public thinking, "now that's what Division I hockey is all about.

"That's the type of program we want to emulate."

Fans and statewide media packed the Glas for that BSU-Minnesota game, now years past. In the end, the Golden Gophers laid a whippin' on the Beavs in that game, winning 9-3. It was like an older brother teaching a lesson to a younger sibling.

Now fast forward nine seasons ...

The Beavers enter the 2009-10 season fresh off an odds-defying run to the Frozen Four. BSU's late-season surge made the Beavers the buzz of the college hockey world, not just in Minnesota, but across the land.

Continuing where they left off the season before, the Beavers start the 2009-10 season on a tear, entering the much anticipated series against Minnesota with a record of 7-0-1 and ranked seventh nationally. At the same time the Gophers struggled to a 3-4-1 start and are unranked.

The same big city media pundits who patted BSU head coach Tom Serratore on the back in years past for losing to the Gophers "only" 3-1 or 5-1 and claiming BSU should be happy with moral victories are now saying the Beavers are the favorites in the series against Minnesota.

BSU? The favorites? Against Minnesota?

What a difference nine seasons makes.

After losing 4-1 in the series opener, the Beavers come back the next night and win handily, whipping the Golden Gophers 6-2 at Mariucci Arena. A viewer watching the game from his family room in Bemidji wanted to take a picture of the TV screen:

There it was in full color - (7)BSU 6, Minnesota 2.

Wow .... just wow.

Afterward, Serratore characterized the game as "monumental" win for the Beavers. A few days later he more fully explained what he meant.

"To a certain degree it brought back the same kind of excitement level as winning the NCAA Midwest Regional," he said. "Our fans and alumni -- you could see they were just full of pride. You could see it on their faces and hear it in their voices.

"You can beat a higher ranked team, as we have in the past and that's exciting, but not the same as a win like this. The Gophers are the premier program on the state; we were center stage with them and won. To me, that's monumental in terms of people's perceptions of our program and the pride it generated among our fans."

The Beavers are on a roll. After all the blood, sweat, tears and turmoil of the past, the program is now reaping the benefits.

Consider this: Since Jan. 24 of last year, the Beavers feature a record of 23-4-2. Included are victories over Notre Dame, Cornell and Minnesota, along with a tough road victory and tie at Northern Michigan.

Does Bemidji State belong in NCAA Division I hockey? Was the right decision made all those many years ago? Does a university the size of BSU and the community the size of Bemidji have the resources to produce a truly competitive hockey team at the highest level of collegiate sports?

Just look at the record ...and maybe ask Minnesota.