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Bemidji State men's hockey: Offseason routine 'business as usual' ahead of first WCHA season

Bemidji State head men's hockey coach Tom Serratore gives instructions to his team during a game against the University of Minnesota last season in Minneapolis. Pioneer File Photo/Eric Stromgren1 / 2
This composite photo shows the construction progress of the Bemidji Regional Event Center arena last week. Pioneer Photo Illustration/Brad Swenson2 / 2

There is no offseason in college hockey.

The first regular season game at the Bemidji Regional Event Center may be 90 days away, but the Bemidji State men's hockey players are busy in offseason work regiments and coaches are on the recruiting trail finding future players.

BSU head coach Tom Serratore said the team is going through a routine offseason even though a new home in the BREC and a challenging schedule in the first season of Western Collegiate Hockey Association play looms on the horizon.

"It's business as usual for us and we're not changing anything we do in the offseason," Serratore said. "You can't control the schedule. There's going to be stretches in this league where nothing is going to go right and you have to try and not get too rattled. Every team in the league goes through that."

Such is life in a league that includes the traditional power programs of Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota. The WCHA is also a league that has won 36 national titles and finished runner-up 28 times since its formation in 1951.

Serratore's forecast is a blunt assessment that reflects what will be the week-in, week-out grind of WCHA play.

The regular season begins at the BREC with a two-game series against North Dakota (Oct. 15-16) and is followed by a home series against Minnesota-Duluth.

BSU opens November with its first road series at St. Cloud State.

"I think the biggest thing when I look at the schedule is 'welcome to the WCHA,'" Serratore said. "There's never going to be an off weekend and that goes with the territory in this league. Right away we have North Dakota, St. Cloud State, UMD and those three teams are probably going to be in the top five of the preseason poll. We're going to be battle tested immediately. There's no question about that."

In the first half of the season the Beavers will play home series against Alaska-Anchorage, Northern Michigan and Nebraska-Omaha.

The second half of the season begins at the University of Minnesota-hosted Dodge Holiday Classic in Minneapolis where the Beavers will play Ferris State and Union.

BSU will play three home series in the second half with matchups against St. Cloud State, Colorado College and the regular-season finale against Minnesota on March 4-5.

The first round of the WCHA playoffs opens the following week when the top six teams in the final WCHA standings host a best-of-three series against the bottom six teams. The series winners advance to the WCHA Final Five in St. Paul beginning March 17.

BSU played WCHA teams in a number of non-conference games in recent years and were 3-3 against WCHA opponents last season.

Now those games will be worth points in the WCHA standings and much rides on every regular season league game from October to March.

One bad losing streak in WCHA play could mean the loss of playoff home-ice advantage and a tough, if not impossible, road to the NCAA Tournament.

Bemidji State reached three NCAA Tournaments in the past through an automatic bid by winning the College Hockey America conference playoff championship. The WCHA Final Five playoff champion also earns an automatic bid.

But unlike the now defunct CHA, teams finishing second, third or fourth in the WCHA regular season standings have a chance for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Winning consistently in the WCHA during the regular season is just as important as winning in the playoffs to be considered for the NCAA Tournament.

"Every weekend we go out in the WCHA we're going to be competing for points. There is some uncertainty for us because we're going into foreign territory and it's going to be interesting to see how we respond when points are on the line," Serratore said. "In the WCHA, if you get a split you're pretty happy and if you win on the road you're ecstatic. The players are having a great offseason and they know a challenge is coming. But we've played in some big games, too, and we know what to expect in those situations."

Bemidji State played in the last two NCAA Tournaments, reached the Frozen Four in 2009 and earned an at-large bid for the first time in program history in 2010. BSU's record is 43-26-5 over the last two seasons.

Serratore is looking forward to next season's challenge and has been talking hockey throughout the summer on BSU caravan stops at Roseau, Warroad, International Falls, Blackduck and other towns in northern Minnesota.

"We're so excited for the season. The fans have rallied behind us and it's great to see where we are at with ticket sales," Serratore said. "The stars have really aligned for us and we wouldn't be where we are at right now without our fan base. We're small market and the support we've had from within the community and the region -- I can't say enough about it."