Their journey began Wednesday not long after the sun ascended to melt the week-old Minnesota snow. A bus trip south to Route 2 between the frozen Cass Lake and Pike Bay. Another half-hour to Lake Winnibigoshish, through Warba, Wawina and Floodwood and another hour or so to Duluth.
And another 26 hours to the District for the chance to witness Bemidji State pull off a miracle by earning a berth in the NCAA Division I men’s hockey championship game.
“This is a million-dollar opportunity for us,” said Jim Bensen, a former university president who celebrated his 72nd birthday on the bus Wednesday.
It was an opportunity lost, but not forgotten, as the Beavers fell 4-1 to Miami (Ohio).
But these folks from the banks of Lake Bemidji are of hearty stock. They fish. They hunt. They endure winters that linger like an unwelcome relative. They wake each morning to the smell of fresh lake water and icy Canadian air filling their lungs. The kind of lungs that allow kids to skate on ponds for hours on end and, without invitation, yell seven big, bold letters: B! E! M! I! D! J! I!
On the bus from Bemidji, Bensen and his wife, Nancy, along with 49 others watched the movie “Miracle,” the story of the gold medal-winning U.S. men’s hockey team from the 1980 Olympics. The comparisons between that team and Bemidji State have grown in the past week as news spread of the upstart 16th-seeded Beavers, who dispatched Notre Dame and Cornell for a berth in the national semifinals.
Bensen has enjoyed the exposure for the university and the town of about 14,000 residents. He has spent his semi-retirement as chairman of BemidjiLeads, an initiative to grow Bemidji as a social and economic center in Minnesota. Residents consider the Beavers’ success the most exciting thing to happen to the community since the team’s undefeated run to the Division II championship in 1984.
“This is out of the ordinary. This is excitement,” said Jim Schwartz, a financial planner who flew to the District through Minneapolis on Thursday morning. “Anything that can create a buzz in our community is just great.”
Bemidji State filled a request for 600 tickets and asked for 600 more but was denied. Fans came to the District anyway, some on roundabout flights through Atlanta, some driving through the night. Those with tickets packed the west end of Verizon Center, creating a sea of deep green. Others would watch on television from the bar, beer in one hand and a raised index finger in the other. The chants came, over and over: “Let’s go, Beavers!” Slow, and with emphasis on each syllable.
Fans felt positive from the start.
“These guys can definitely hang with anybody,” Marc Olsen said from the last row of Section 118. “They’re very underrated.”
Tension filled the first period as Bemidji State fans saw their team fire a dozen shots on goal with no success. On the other end, goalie Matt Dalton earned a standing ovation for a series of glove saves.
It was a scoreless tie after one period, but out on the concourse, Bensen paced nervously.
“Hockey’s a funny game,” he said. “Against Notre Dame, they came out and scored right away and just poured it on.”
Jake Reierson, a recent graduate who traveled to the District with his father, Mike, was more optimistic.
“This place is going to explode in a second,” he said.
But the second period came like an arctic blast to the face. A power play goal by Miami four minutes in. Another goal four minutes later. Bemidji scored at the 10-minute mark, but Miami responded immediately. It was 3-1, and things looked grim.
“Right now, it’s do or die,” Mike Reierson said. “They just haven’t been in sync all game. I just hope they can show they belonged to be here - because they do belong to be here.”
As the final second of the third period clicked down, the crowd crescendoed to recognize Miami’s berth in the title game - and Bemidji’s long and unexpected journey.
“A lot of people were pulling for us,” said Travis Winter, Bemidji State’s senior captain. “We were part of a feel-good story, and that’s something that’s really special to be a part of. Unfortunately, we came up on the wrong end, but it’s been a good run.”