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31 games, 31 wins: Thirty years ago, Bemidji State fashioned a hockey season to remember

R.H. “Bob” Peters coached Bemidji State to 702 victories and 13 national championships from 1966 to 2001. His 1983-84 team produced 31 of those victories and did not lose a game en route to the NCAA Division II title. That squad is featured on a mural at the Sanford Center. Pat Miller | Bemidji Pioneer1 / 4
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The 1983-84 Beavers celebrated their 31st victory, an 8-1 win over Merrimack in the NCAA Division II finals at the John Glas Fieldhouse. BSU Photo Services3 / 4
Bemidji State’s Joel Otto (24), shown here playing against Alaska-Fairbanks, went on to play 14 seasons with the Calgary Flames and Philadelphia Flyers in the National Hockey League. BSU Photo Services4 / 4

BEMIDJI — From his perch on the bench, R.H. “Bob” Peters has had a ringside seat to many historic events in the world of college hockey, and many of those moments have been created by his teams and his players.

During his 36 years as a head coach, Peters was the architect of teams that posted a record of 744 wins, 313 losses and 50 ties; won 13 national championships at Bemidji State University; and produced more than 80 All-America selections.

A history buff, Peters remembers everyone who donned the Green and White and he can recite the accomplishments of every player who represented the university during his tenure. More important than BSU’s record during the Peters era, however, is the bond that was created among the Beavers. Since his move to the Beavers bench in 1966-67, Peters has preached tradition and the Bemidji State family. As a result of that philosophy, every Bemidji State hockey player can share in the success of every team, including the 13 national championship editions.

“What we tried to do at Bemidji State was provide an opportunity to grow as individuals, as hockey players, as leaders and as a team,” said Peters, who retired following the 2000-01 season. “That is what playing hockey at Bemidji State is all about.”

Among the teams that took advantage of those opportunities was the 1983-84 edition, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this winter. That team began the season with a 9-1 victory over Winnipeg, and 31 games later the squad closed the campaign with an 8-1 win over Merrimack. The latter victory capped a historic season that produced a 31-0-0 record and an NCAA Division II national championship.

The 1983-84 team was one of only six college men’s teams to compile an unbeaten and untied season and remains the lone squad to accomplish that task while winning at least 30 games.

“At BSU there have been years that have served as benchmarks for collegiate hockey and the 1983-84 season is among them,” Peters said. “Everybody we played wanted to knock us off and for a team to remain that inspired and take nothing for granted is special.

“A season like that starts with the people. We had skilled athletes who were motivated in the classroom and on the ice. We had very good people on that team,” Peters added.

Among those people was Bob Fitzgerald, who was a senior forward on the checking line.

“I played with Mark Lescarbeau and his brother Tim Lescarbeau, and our role was to play against the opponent’s top line and to shut it down,” Fitzgerald said. “When the three of us came to Bemidji State we all were scorers, but coach made us into checkers. That is not a role for everybody, but I loved getting inside the helmets of the opponents. And by doing our job we allowed our top line to go against the opponent’s second and third lines and carve them up.”

Offensive balance was among the team’s strengths, and the players on the checking line also knew how to put the puck in the net.

Fitzgerald finished his career with 65 points in 96 games, while Mark Lescarbeau had 107 points in 125 games and Tim Lescarbeau collected 133 points in 101 contests.

“Our main goal was to keep the opponents from scoring and we were able to do that,” Mark Lescarbeau said. “But we even scored a few points as well.

“We were a deep team,” Mark Lescarbeau continued. “It seemed as if we were a team of destiny. Joel (Otto) was coming into his own as a tremendous small college player and Mike Alexander was a great player as a sophomore. At the blue line we also were very strong, and leading them was Drey Bradley.”

Alexander still holds Bemidji State’s career scoring record with 252 points in 136 games. Otto ranks third all-time with 204 points in 122 games while Bradley’s 97 points in 113 games ranks sixth among defensemen.

Otto was drafted by Calgary of the NHL following the 1984 campaign and played 11 seasons with the Flames. In 1989, Otto helped lead the Flames to the Stanley Cup and in 2005 he was named one of the 25 greatest players in the history of the Calgary franchise.

He finished his pro career by playing three seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers. During his 14-year career Otto scored 195 goals and dished 313 assists in 943 games.

Even though Otto was a magician with the puck he appreciates the importance of defense.

“I’m coaching a Junior team in Calgary now and I’ve always believed that success starts with goaltending and defense,” he said. “If you have a foundation built on defense, the game takes care of itself.”

The 1983-84 Beavers possessed a staunch defense but if an opponent did have a good shot on the Bemidji State net, he still had to figure out a way to slip the puck past either Mark Liska or Galen Nagle. The duo shared the goaltending duties that winter, and both finished their careers among BSU’s all-time leaders.

Nagle continues to top the Beaver record book with a .9308 save percentage and a 2.039 goals-against average. Liska isn’t far behind as he ranks eighth in save percentage (.9027) and ninth in GAA (2.760).

“I know we had the most talented goaltending duo in the NCHA that year,” Liska said. “Galen and I were very good friends. We were competing for the one spot and competing to play the game, but we never thought like that.

“We practiced together, even at 6 a.m. when Galen and I would go to the field house, put on our masks, cups and gloves, do somersaults and juggle tennis balls as we came out of the tumbling,” Liska continued. “If Galen noticed a little thing I needed to work on he would tell me and if he had something he needed to work on I would tell him. The way we looked at things, Galen and I were just one guy of a big family.”

Peters noticed the commitment by everybody on the 1983-84 squad and how each player relished the family atmosphere.

“The players recognized the player/team concept and they all wanted to play for and with each other,” the coach said. “On a hockey team you don’t want the prima-donnas, the ‘me first guys’ because subconsciously they know that if you don’t play as a team you probably will get knocked off by a team that does play as a team.

“But with the 1983-84 team, not playing together wasn’t a concern.”

“Coach did a masterful job of making us believe that we were a unique family and we bought into that,” Otto, who won the small-college Hobey Baker Award that year, said. “We had six seniors, a number of juniors and some sophomores who had been together for quite a while and we hadn’t tasted the victory that many Beavers had tasted before — winning a national championship. That is what we wanted and we found ways to rally around each other to get what we wanted.”

During any hockey season a team will experience some adversity and there were a handful of close calls for the 1983-84 Beavers.

“In late January we were down 2-0 to Mankato with seven or eight minutes to play,” Lescarbeau recalled. “And that’s when Scott Monsrud went to work. He scored a hat trick, including the game-winner in the last minute, to give us a 3-2 win.”

A week later the Beavers escaped St. Scholastica 3-2 in overtime for their 24th win, and after that game the players decided that an unbeaten season should be their goal.

“When we defeated Scholastica I heard from the grapevine that the players said they were not going to lose this year,” Peters said. “And we had some very tough games yet to play.”

“Most of the year I don’t think we knew how good we were,” Liska said. “Coach always said that a successful team will sweep at home and split on the road. But as long as we made a road trip, we thought we might as well win both games. Everybody had their jobs and we knew what we had to do.”

After ending the regular season 27-0 with a home sweep of Mankato State, the Beavers hosted Alaska-Fairbanks in the national semifinals. The format at the time was a two-game, total-goals series, and BSU took the opener 9-6. In the series finale the Beavers won 4-2 to claim the series and set up a national championship matchup at the John Glas Fieldhouse against Merrimack of Massachusetts.

Not that Bemidji State needed any extra motivation, but in this series the Beavers had an extra glide in their skates.

“Before the series the Merrimack coach said that Bemidji was a good team but that there were better teams out East. And that got us going,” Fitzgerald remembered. “That was bulletin board material and we wanted to prove to him and to the teams out East that we were the real deal.”

A 6-3 victory in the opening game with Liska in the net set the tone, and the Beavers capped their year to remember the next night with an 8-1 blowout. Nagle had the honor of being between BSU’s pipes in the historic victory.

“Galen was a senior, and he made so much improvement during his career that we had to start the year alternating goalies,” said Peters, himself a former high school and collegiate goaltender. “Galen deserved that and the players respected Galen so much that alternating goalies worked.

“I started the season rotating goalies thinking it would sort itself out, but it never did,” Peters continued. “The last game was Galen’s turn and I faced a dilemma deciding if I should continue the rotation. But the players knew that Galen deserved to play and I knew how the players felt.”

Nagle did get the start in the final game and he turned in another brilliant performance.

“Galen not only went on to win the game, he ended up being named the MVP of the tournament,” Peters said.

On Feb. 15 the player and coaches of the 1983-84 hockey team will celebrate the 30th anniversary of that glorious season by having the squad inducted into the Bemidji State University Athletic Hall of Fame. Many of the players have already made plans to attend the ceremony and relive the memories of that special time.

“We still get together as much as possible, at least once a year at Galen’s memorial golf tournament,” Mark Lescarbeau said. “It is great to return and see the familiar faces like Jerry Phillips, Tom Kaplan and Vance (Balstad). Always, the first thing that happens when we get back is that Vance sticks out his hand and says — ‘Welcome Home.’

“That tradition will last forever.”

Nagle and two teammates will not be among the honored guests in February. In 1996, at the age of 34, Nagle died of cancer. Cancer has also claimed Scott Monsrud and Dan Pyle. Even though the three are gone, they will always be a part of the Beaver hockey family.

“I’m sure when we come back in February we will share many memories,” Otto said. “But we will also salute our fallen soldiers.”

The 1983-84 BSU hockey team had the talent to fashion a 31-0 season and win the NCAA Division II championship. But it also had another ingredient that not every team possesses.

“Hockey is a simple game,” Peters said. “Play the game because you love it and love the game because you play it. That’s the real answer to success. When people bring their heads and hearts to the rink and to the classroom they become an outstanding team that is capable of great success.

“And that is what those players did.”

Pat Miller

Pat Miller is the sports editor at the Pioneer.

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