BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji State men’s hockey team will soon have a new in-state rival.

The University of St. Thomas announced Wednesday that its men’s hockey program will join the Central Collegiate Hockey Association when the league begins play in 2021-22. The Tommies will join BSU and six other current Western Collegiate Hockey Association programs in the new conference.

“I couldn’t be more ecstatic,” BSU head coach Tom Serratore said. “They add a lot to our league. They’re in a metropolitan market, they’re in the state of Minnesota. … From our standpoint, having another team in the state of Minnesota reduces our travel and increases our rivalries.”

The St. Paul-based Tommies will become the sixth NCAA Division I men’s hockey program in the state of Minnesota.

“It’s been long overdue,” Serratore said. “Hockey is part of the fabric of our state and to have six Division I schools right now, that’s exciting.”

The creation of the new CCHA was due in part to the time and expense schools devoted to traveling to far-flung places like Alaska and Alabama. St. Thomas fits well within the Midwestern footprint of the new league and puts the Beavers only a short bus ride away from a conference foe.

“We just added a team in our league that’s going to be our closest rival,” Serratore said. “That’s exciting from that standpoint. … There’s no question, you have a natural rivalry with your in-state competition if it plays out that way. We’re going to have a heck of a rivalry with them.”

Bemidji State will also have an additional Minnesota rival to compete with for recruits. But the condensed travel schedule could also present itself as a positive, Serratore said.

“We only have to hop on a plane once a year now,” he said, referring to Bowling Green trips. “We had pretty intense travel and now it’s been reduced considerably. To me that’s a great selling point for prospective recruits.”

Eight is a good number for the new conference due to a variety of reasons, Serratore added.

“In my opinion, the perfect league is eight teams,” he said. “From a scheduling standpoint, there’s not going to be many games where you’re going to be back-to-back on the road or back-to-back at home. You can do so much with a schedule with eight teams. Where (if) you start getting 10 teams, 11 teams, 12 teams -- scheduling can really be a problem.”

Head coach Jeff Boeser’s Tommies finished 15-10-3 last season and qualified for their 17th NCAA Division III Tournament in program history by claiming the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference playoff title. The tournament was canceled before it started due to the coronavirus pandemic.

St. Thomas is the sixth-oldest Division III men’s hockey program and has recorded 38 straight winning seasons, including 33 top-two MIAC finishes during that time.

The Beavers own a 24-3-1 all-time record against the Tommies since the series began Feb. 10, 1961. The teams have not met since Nov. 29, 1998, during BSU’s final season before ascending to Division I.

More than two decades later, St. Thomas will follow in Bemidji State’s footsteps as the state’s latest program to rise to the top tier of college hockey.

“St. Thomas has been a small-college power in athletics and they’ve also been the most dominant team over the years in the MIAC hockey conference,” Serratore said. “I don’t see that changing when they go Division I. I think they have the ability of getting good awful quick.”

With a commissioner in place and an eighth member secured, Serratore likes where the CCHA stands a year out from its first season.

“We just feel we’re in a good spot right now as a league,” Serratore said. “We wanted an eighth team, but we wanted the right eighth team, and we feel we got the right eighth team with St. Thomas. It was just great timing.”