MEN'S HOCKEY: Raised by hockey on the Iron Range, Tom Serratore never left the game he loves
Born in Deer River but raised in Coleraine, Tom Serratore grew up during a booming period on the Iron Range, when the success of the surrounding area elevated the profile of its athletic prowess – and hockey was at center ice of all of it.
BEMIDJI — Tom Serratore was bred by hockey.
Born in Deer River but raised in Coleraine, Serratore grew up during a booming period on the Iron Range, when the success of the surrounding area elevated the profile of its athletic prowess – and hockey was at center ice of all of it.
“My interest in hockey is probably very unique,” said Serratore, now the head coach of the Bemidji State men’s hockey team. “We didn't have hockey (in Deer River), and we moved to Coleraine, 20 miles away, in 1969. So I was 5 years old. My brothers were a little older. And what happened is I moved into probably one of the craziest hockey communities in the state of Minnesota at that particular time. Hockey was everything on the Iron Range.”
Hockey may have featured prominently in the region, but it was partially a result of the economic achievement the region found itself enjoying.
“The mining companies were flourishing, the paper mill in Grand Rapids there, everybody was working on the Iron Range,” Serratore said. “The enrollment in the schools was high. But hockey was the fabric and hockey was the culture of all those communities. And that's where hockey was really born in the state of Minnesota, on the Iron Range.”
It was with that mountainous backdrop that a young Serratore established a love for the game that would eventually become his livelihood.
“I grew up one block from the Caseys,” Serratore said. “Jon Casey played in the National Hockey League. He's played the most games in the NHL of any Minnesota goalie ever. So they got me involved in hockey. I started hockey in second grade, but all of it was because of the community that we moved to. It's part of the fabric and culture of those areas.”
Onward and outward
Eventually, Serratore matriculated at Minnesota State, joining the Mavericks hockey program. But while he was passionate about the sport growing up, playing in college was never a long-term goal of his.
“All you ever wanted to do is make the high school team and play for your school,” Serratore said. “That was kind of like the pinnacle of what you thought about. You worried about those other things when you got there, but I never once ever heard anyone talk about college hockey, for example. We never did that.”
Yet, by virtue of playing in a heavily recruited area of Minnesota, Serratore made his way to MSU, where his worldview – limited while growing up – began to expand.
“The world was smaller back then,” Serratore said. “The first time I was on an airplane was my freshman year in college. The only other state I was ever in until I went on that airplane trip to Colorado to play Air Force was Wisconsin, and it was Superior, 75 miles away. You just didn't travel.
“The big road trip was going to Roseau or Warroad or International Falls. I remember going to International Falls thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm going to a different state.’ It was an hour and 45 minutes away. But that was what your perception was of a long ways away. That was our world.”
After two seasons with Minnesota State, Serratore decided to transfer to Bemidji State. Perhaps the biggest reason for the change was his desire to learn the trade of coaching from legendary head coach Bob Peters, but Serratore also admired the school’s education pedigree that dated back to its days as Bemidji State Teachers College, where his mother earned her teaching degree.
“I came here because I wanted to be a coach,” Serratore said. “I wanted to coach and I wanted to teach. There was no better person to do that than with coach Peters. So I came to Bemidji State, and the culture here, probably half of our team, maybe even more than half of our team was in education.”
Dues and dividends
When it came time to advance past playing college hockey, Serratore’s experience at BSU had set him up for success.
“The main reason I got a teaching job out of college was because I played at Bemidji State and I played for Bob Peters,” Serratore said. “That got me in the door.”
Serratore commenced his coaching career as an assistant at Brainerd High School in 1987, then moved to Mendota Heights in 1991 and took the reins as head coach of Henry Sibley High, now known as Two Rivers High School.
A few years into that endeavor, an opportunity to return to the collegiate ranks became available and altered the trajectory of Serratore’s life.
“I worked hockey schools at St. Cloud State,” Serratore said. “(St. Cloud State head coach) Craig Dahl had an opening, and for whatever reason, (he asked me). It was called the restricted earnings job. The NCAA, back in the early ‘90s, you only could have one full-time assistant coach. The other one was called a restricted earnings coach. You only could make $12,000.”
That was enough for Serratore, who realized the opportunity he had at hand.
“The only reason he offered me the job, nobody else probably wanted it,” Serratore said. “And I wanted that opportunity. So I took the job. I got paid $12,000 being an assistant coach, and then I got paid $12,000 to work in the admissions department.”
Called back to the Beavers
Before long, Serratore was promoted to the full-time assistant role after current Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings left to coach the Omaha Lancers of the USHL. And after five years serving as recruiting coordinator for the Huskies, a familiar voice came calling from back in Bemidji.
“We were doing very well at St. Cloud State,” Serratore said. “And coach (Peters) called me. He just said, ‘Tom, we're going to go Division I in hockey. I'd like to hire you and let's do this together.’ I said, ‘I'm all in.’”
He certainly was. Starting in 1999, Serratore helped transition the program into a higher level of competition in two years as Peters’ assistant, then took the helm of the Beavers as the heir apparent – Serratore’s words – in 2001.
He’s remained at Bemidji State since, shepherding BSU fully into its Division I era and building it into a program that can go toe-to-toe with the nation’s elite.
“You realize where you were at in 1999,” Serratore said. “And then in 2005, you take the national champion Denver Pioneers to overtime. And then you start going to more NCAA Tournaments. Well, then seven years into my head coaching career, we go to the Frozen Four. Who would have ever thought that?”
Now entering his 22nd season in charge of the Beavers and 30th overall coaching college hockey, what does the future look like for Serratore? A lot like the past.
“I got no expiration date,” he asserted. “Right now, I'm in great health. I still got fire in me, I still have jam. I'm young at heart. My motivation is high. I enjoy coming to work. It's part of who I am.”
For this Iron Ranger, there’s plenty of ore left to mine.
“Some people, you talk to them and they can't wait for retirement,” Serratore said. “I don't even think of that. Right now, I believe that I'm in my 40s. That's for sure.”