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Junior hockey coach, BSU alum Pat Cullen reacts to WCHA expansion

Friday's announcement of Bemidji State's inclusion into the WCHA affected Pat Cullen on a personal and professional level.

"I'm excited for the program and as an alumnus and I only hope for the best for the program," Cullen said. "Obviously, anytime a DI program goes into the WCHA it's very exciting."

Cullen is a 1993 graduate of Bemidji State University and earned all-America honors playing for Bob Peters in 1991.

Today, Cullen is one of the most respected coaches in junior hockey.

His coaching resume includes stints at Hamline, St. Olaf and in the United States Hockey League with former franchises in Mason City, Iowa and Rochester, Minn.

An International Falls native, Cullen is the current head coach and general manger of the Owatonna (Minn.) Express of the North American Hockey League.

Cullen has sent over 20 players to various Division I programs over the last four seasons and said he has a close working relationship with the Bemidji State coaching staff.

Cullen feels that Bemidji State's standing around junior hockey circles was boosted by Friday's announcement and playing in the WCHA will help the Beavers recruit more talented players in the coming years.

"I know they do things the right way up there and I always hoped that something would come around for them," Cullen said. "Going to the WCHA is a feather in the cap for that program."

Cullen continued, "Being in the WCHA will make it easier for recruiting because now players will know Bemidji State as a destination to play in the premier conference in college hockey. For Tom (Serratore), Bert (Gilling) and Ted (Belisle), it is going to be easier for them knowing they have the WCHA in their side pocket."

On the other side of the recruiting process, Cullen empathized and understood the challenges the Bemidji State men's hockey program faced since College Hockey America announced it was going to fold after the 2009-10 season.

Despite the impending dissolution of the CHA, Cullen said he never wavered from wanting to send players to Bemidji State.

"Absolutely not," Cullen said when asked if he ever considered not recommending a player to Bemidji State. "My goal as a junior hockey coach is the same every year and that is to get our players to the college level. I know that if one of my players is going to BSU they are going to get a good education and I never hesitate in recommending BSU as an option."

For young hockey players looking to develop at the collegiate level, questions inevitably arose concerning Bemidji State's future as a hockey program - even after the groundbreaking of the Bemidji Regional Event Center.

"It's really not that easy to be hanging around in limbo for that long even with getting to the NCAA tournament and getting to the Frozen Four," Cullen said. "This is really exciting because it gives the program a permanent home."

Cullen's Owatonna Express compete in the NAHL's Central Division along with the Albert Lea (Minn.) Thunder, Alexandria (Minn.) Blizzard, Bismarck (N.D.) Bobcats and the North Iowa (Mason City) Outlaws.

As the Southern Minnesota Express head coach, Cullen guided that franchise to two straight Robertson Cup national tournaments and came within one game of reaching the tournament again last season with the Owatonna Express.

The year-round recruiting race stands to benefit junior hockey in Minnesota as the WCHA's expansion means five teams in Minnesota. Including Nebraska-Omaha puts six teams within a 400-mile proximity of Minneapolis and within range of four of the five teams in the Central Division.

"I know that the guys playing in this division are going to be more excited with the looks they are going to be getting from the WCHA," Cullen said. "As a junior hockey coach, we want as many options for our kids to play. Losing BSU would not have been good for the junior game because that would have meant one less scout stopping by."

Cullen also shared his thoughts on Bemidji State's run through the NCAA Tournament to the Frozen Four.

"It was really once in a lifetime experience - who would have thought that little old Bemidji State would get that far - it shows how good the coaches are there that they could get the players to believe in themselves despite all that was going on around them," Cullen said. "What they had was a magical run and it's just not going to happen every year. Especially in the WCHA - schools like North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and all the other good schools in that conference - they're all going to have something to say about that in the future."