By Austin Monteith
BEMIDJI, Minn. — Ten years ago, Bemidji took to the national spotlight for one of the most momentous occasions in the community’s sporting history.
The Bemidji State men’s hockey team advanced to its first — and so far only — NCAA Division I Frozen Four in program history. As champions of the College Hockey America conference, No. 16 overall seed BSU waltzed through the Midwest Regional with upset wins over Notre Dame and Cornell by a combined score of 9-2.
The Beavers were D.C. bound.
Though Bemidji State fell to Miami of Ohio in the national semifinals in Washington 11 days later, that spring will never be forgotten by Beaver fans.
A decade later, some members of that team remain as connected to the BSU program as ever. Others have moved on to playing careers in the NHL. As Minnesota Duluth and Massachusetts play for the 2019 title, a few members of the ‘09 Beavers recently took the time to reflect on the 10th anniversary of Bemidji State’s historic run.
From sluggish start to OT glory
Not many in the college hockey world would have predicted a Frozen Four run from the Beavers given the way the 2008-09 season started. BSU lost its first four games out of the gate to Minnesota State and Air Force, all on the road.
“No one ever expected us to go at the start of the year,” said Brad Hunt, a freshman blueliner at the time. “If you asked anybody at the start of the year if we’d be at the Frozen Four, I don’t think you’d get a lot of yeses. It was one of those things where we just grew as a team through the year, and I think that was the coolest part.”
After a 6-0 Saturday night defeat to Air Force, head coach Tom Serratore called a team meeting.
“What are we going to do?” Serratore asked the team. “What’s the season going to be like? We’re 0-4 right now.”
“We didn’t start out well,” said Matt Read, a sophomore forward on the team. “After that we knew we had a good team. … (The win over SCSU) gave us confidence, and I think we played with that confidence the rest of the season.”
A November loss at Niagara put BSU at 3-7-0 overall. A six-game winning streak ensued, followed by a six-game losing streak that saw the team drop close games at Dartmouth, North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth.
The young team began to find its footing in the second half with first-year starting goalie Matt Dalton coming into his own as his sophomore year wore on. Burgeoning star Read gelled with a group of senior forwards that included Tyler Scofield, Matt Francis and Travis Winter, while Hunt made an immediate impact on the blue line.
“We felt we had four strong lines,” Serratore said. “We had only maybe a line-and-a-half that could really generate a lot of offense, but we had good puzzle pieces and good depth with those lines.”
Another CHA loss to Niagara in January dropped the Beavers to 8-13-0. They would only lose two more games the rest of the way, finishing the regular season on an 8-2-1 tear to secure the right to host the CHA Tournament as regular-season champions.
“We had a group that knew how to win,” said Winter, the team’s captain. “We really turned a corner down the stretch.”
Bemidji State defeated its rivals from Alabama Huntsville 4-1 in the CHA semifinals to set up a winner-take-all championship game against Robert Morris at the Glas with an automatic NCAA tournament bid at stake.
Neither team led by more than a goal in a tense back-and-forth contest.
“The only thing I remember with that overtime game was how nervous the players were on the bench,” Serratore said. “You could sense it. But also the fans. It was a weird game. Nobody on both teams wanted to make a mistake for 60 minutes.”
Tied at 2-2 eight minutes into overtime, BSU won an offensive zone faceoff. Read got free and scored off a rebound that blew the roof off John Glas Fieldhouse.
“I remember going into overtime just sitting there with the idea that the next goal gets you into the national tournament,” said Read, whose 40 points led the team. “On our home ice, it was obviously a big moment for the team and school history to score that goal, and even to move on to the national tournament in front of all the fans.”
“I’ve never seen it so crazy,” Serratore said of the Glas. “Everybody was going nuts. Our players jumped on the glass. And I think winning that game at home, how we won that game, that momentum carried right into the regionals in Grand Rapids, Michigan.”
Beavers knock off Notre Dame, Cornell
Read’s overtime heroics landed the Beavers a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the third time since moving to Division I in 1999. Entering the tournament with a record of 18-15-1, the CHA champions were given the No. 16 overall seed in the field of 16 teams.
The Beavers’ first-round opponent? Notre Dame, the top seed in the Midwest Regional and the No. 2 overall seed.
Not many prognosticators pegged the 31-5-3 Fighting Irish to drop their opening game, especially not to a school with which many were unfamiliar and had only jumped to Division I a decade prior.
That didn’t faze Bemidji State.
“We had nothing to lose,” Hunt said. “We just went into that first game and we had our game plan that coach wanted us to do. We did it to a T.”
Not even two minutes into the game, junior Chris McKelvie scored an odd goal off a misplayed Notre Dame breakout from behind the net to go up 1-0.
“Now we’re playing with house money,” Tom Serratore said. “… We just built on that and we were obviously instantly confident in that particular game.”
Scofield, who led the team with 22 goals on the year, netted a power-play goal midway through the opening frame for a 2-0 lead.
Freshman Ben Kinne extended the lead to 3-0 in the second period before Read scored a crucial shorthanded goal that made it 4-0 seconds into the third. Scofield buried a late empty-netter to advance the Beavers onto the regional finals with a one-sided 5-1 upset win, stunning the Irish fans in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The win featured the 37th-ranked team in the Pairwise rankings taking down the No. 2 team. That stands as the second-largest upset in NCAA Tournament history by Pairwise ranking, behind only No. 38 RIT over No. 1 Minnesota State in 2015.
“They weren’t expecting it at all,” Hunt said. “(Notre Dame) thought it was going to be kind of a cakewalk almost. We got a couple goals early and it was an uphill battle for them the rest of the game.”
A trip to the Frozen Four was on the line in BSU’s next game against third-seeded Cornell, who had defeated second-seeded Northeastern 3-2 in the semifinals.
The Beavers were confident they’d take down the Big Red.
“I remember talking to (senior defenseman) Cody Bostock after our (first) game,” Winter recalled. “I remember telling him I just had that feeling we were going to win that next game. We were playing so well. I knew we had a good matchup, and our great play just carried over into the next day.”
Following a scoreless first period, Cornell scored at 12:35 of the second to get on the board 1-0. The Big Red weren’t known for their attack, but they were a defensively strong team opponents didn’t want to trail on the scoreboard.
“I remember on the bench just going, ‘Oh boy,’” Serratore said. “‘We’ve got an uphill battle here.’”
Soon after, Ryan Adams chose the perfect time for his first career goal. The sophomore defenseman leveled the score at 1-all and the team’s confidence quickly returned.
Scofield tallied the game-winning goal at 4:05 of the third period. Francis made it 3-1 before Scofield, who was selected the regional’s Most Outstanding Player, iced the game with his empty-netter to send Bemidji State to the Frozen Four with a 4-1 win.
“It was just so fun to see everybody share that moment together,” Serratore said. “It was a special time. Nobody expected us to win that (regional), and we won it handily.”
The Beavers received a warm welcome at Bemidji Regional Airport when they landed at about 2 a.m., hours after their win over Cornell.
The Pioneer’s account of the team’s late-night arrival described the scene as “Beatlemania on a Bemidji scale.” A crowd estimated around at about 100 stayed up late to greet the team’s players, coaches and staff.
“To see the support from everybody — your professors, the student body, the people you go to class with, people that are hockey boosters in the area — they were all there to support us,” Read said. “It was kind of cool to come off the plane and walk through the airport and see all that. It just shows the pride and the support that everyone gives Bemidji up there.”
How unexpected was Bemidji State’s run to the Frozen Four?
The ice had already been taken out at John Glas Fieldhouse to make way for the annual Home, Sport and Travel show. The Beavers had to practice at Neilson Reise Arena before setting off for Washington, D.C.
After a week off, BSU traveled to the nation’s capital. Washington was hosting the Frozen Four for the first time ever, and the team took in the sites by visiting the U.S. Capitol, White House and the National Mall.
More than 1,000 people had attended a pep fest sending off the team, and many more fans, students and alumni journeyed to D.C. to support their Beavers. The Cinderella run also caught the attention of the national media with the team making the pages of the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
“The vibe that was going on at that particular time we won — it really reminded me of the Twins winning the World Series in ’87 and ’91,” Serratore said. “… It was unbelievable how caught up you got in Twinsmania. Well, people got caught up in Beavermania at that particular time. And we had a couple of weeks to really enjoy that time.”
Miami, BSU’s opponent in the national semifinals, was also making its first trip to the Frozen Four. Vermont and eventual national champion Boston University met in the other semifinal.
Having pulled off a pair of upset wins in the regional, the Beavers had no reason to believe a national title was out of question.
“We went to the Frozen Four and I thought we were going to win that thing,” Serratore said.
“You don’t earn your way to the Frozen Four and not think that you’ve got the ability to win the national championship,” Winter said. “… We had all the confidence in the world that we were going to go and win the national championship. That was our focus and that was our mindset. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen for us.”
The first period of the national semifinal ended scoreless. Miami took a 2-0 lead eight minutes into the second period before Read halved the lead a minute later. However, the RedHawks answered right back with a goal a minute later en route to a 4-1 victory.
“When we lost to Miami, I remember walking back to my hotel by myself,” Serratore said. “I was so exhausted. I was mentally drained because I didn’t expect us to lose. I just thought that this run was going to continue on. … I actually watched the BU/Vermont game on TV in my hotel room, and then I realized — what an unbelievable run. It’s over. It was a lot of fun. It made me realize again how special it was.
“It’s one of those things that you strive for as a program. Again, you hope that it can happen but it’s hard. You take a look at that Frozen Four and it’s a lot of the same teams year after year. But it was just one of those special times that you shared with everybody.”
A decade removed from the ’09 run, Tom Serratore can still be found behind the Beavers’ bench. He enters his 19th season as head coach in 2019-20.
Travis Winter has since turned in his Beaver sweater for a suit. He has been an assistant coach for BSU since the 2014-15 season.
Matt Read and Brad Hunt have gone on to careers in the NHL, and are among the six players from the 2008-09 Beavers still playing professionally. In fact, they were teammates on the Minnesota Wild during the 2018-19 season.
Of the 26 players on the Frozen Four team, 21 would play professionally.
Many returned for the 2009-10 season, where BSU finished 23-10-4 and earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The second-seeded Beavers fell 5-1 to Michigan in the first round.
None of the members of the Frozen Four team will ever forget that extraordinary 2009 run.
“To be able to do what we did is obviously very special,” Read said. “It’s something I know everyone on that team will remember the rest of their lives. To be a small school from northern Minnesota, to be on the national stage and be a team recognized for what they did that season, it’s a special moment. It kind of put Bemidji on the map for years to come. It’d be nice to see someday that another team gets the opportunity to do that as well.”