- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Folk legends say Lake Bemidji, an 11-square-mile body of water 50 miles north of the Mississippi River headwaters in northern Minnesota, was formed in Paul Bunyan's footprint.

There is another well-worn fable making its way to the lake's tranquil shores this week, just as podalic as the one that pertains to its origin: the story of Cinderella.

After the college basketball season wraps up with a pageant of predictability, college hockey will usher a field of unknowns into the District for this week's Frozen Four. The biggest shocker of them all is Bemidji State University, a tiny school not far from Minnesota's Iron Range that has turned the glass slipper into a snowshoe.

There are few ways to underscore just how surprising an entry the Beavers are to the Frozen Four. They're the first No. 16 seed to advance this far. They're 10 years removed from Division III and play in four-team College Hockey America, making them the first school from outside college hockey's four major conferences to reach the Frozen Four. And here's the kicker: In a state with four other Division I men's programs - including one that might be the Duke of college hockey - Bemidji State is the only one still playing.

“A lot of programs can look at that and say that's an inspiration - a smaller town, a smaller school, however you want to phrase it,” athletic director Rick Goeb said. “There was a lot of talk when Gonzaga made it [to the Elite Eight in 1999] in basketball. There's parallels there with other programs. It certainly creates a buzz.”

But in a week in which the Beavers received mention in the New York Times, broke ground on a $20 million arena and got an impromptu welcome home at 1:30 a.m., they also led Western Collegiate Hockey Association officials on a tour of the campus. They're hoping to hook up with college hockey's most powerful conference - or any conference - by this time next year.

That's right. Cinderella is about to be homeless.

College Hockey America is disbanding after next season, leaving the Beavers with two options: Find another conference or try to make it as an independent. The latter is such a rare - and expensive - proposition that some of the more established programs in college hockey are backing Bemidji State, partially out of concerns for the program's survival.

There are 58 Division I men's hockey programs. Not one of them plays as an independent. The four major conferences all play at least a 22-game league schedule, leaving little room for nonconference slates big enough for an independent team to fill up its calendar.

Even if there were enough games, the travel likely would be too costly for a small school like Bemidji State. It's why, in many ways, the WCHA isn't just the Beavers' best option.

It might be their only hope.

Four schools in the 10-team conference are in Minnesota. Another, the University of North Dakota, is less than three hours from Bemidji State. Michigan Tech and Wisconsin also are reachable by bus.

The conference had a moratorium on expansion until January. Joel Maturi, the athletic director at the University of Minnesota, spearheaded the push for the WCHA to lift it. The school contacted WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod about Bemidji State, asking the conference to consider another small school.

“I've been in the league when we brought in [Minnesota State], St. Cloud [State], Alaska Anchorage. I was part of WCHA when those things happened,” Maturi said. “We did it to improve the sport. We didn't do it just to improve the league. I feel the same way about Bemidji State. I'm very fearful if they don't find a home.”

There's little doubt the WCHA makes the most sense for Bemidji State. Its women's team already plays in the league, and the men played 10 games against WCHA teams this season. On top of all that, the Beavers are going to their first Frozen Four when the proud league is smarting; it didn't put a team in the national semifinals for the first time in 10 years after boasting the national champion six times from 2000 to 2006.

“People are going to know where Bemidji's at,” coach Tom Serratore said. “It gives our community a little exposure, a little notoriety. I don't think you can put a price on that.”

It doesn't, however, change the logistical problems that could keep the Beavers out of the conference. The WCHA plays a 28-game schedule among 10 teams; each team plays two two-game series against five teams and one two-game series against four teams. In a four-year span, the schedule balances out.

There's no way to do that with 11 teams.

“I've put together a schedule three years out with 11 teams and a 28-game schedule. You can do it, but there's no balance, no evenness in home and away, no fairness year-to-year. You're just putting a schedule together,” WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said. “An [unbalanced] schedule happens anyhow, but the legitimacy to the conference crown is gone out the window. It's not a good circumstance.”

McLeod said a schedule would work with 12 teams. But the conference would have to lift its expansion moratorium again, and there's no other obvious candidate to join the league.

And even with 11 teams, money becomes an issue.

The WCHA, like many other leagues, is a jumble of large universities with a full slate of Division I sports and smaller schools that don't have other Division I teams. Because of that, schools like Minnesota State depend on the revenue that comes from home dates with Wisconsin or Minnesota. Both in the Big Ten, the schools have large alumni bases around the country and command a special level of hatred - especially Minnesota, which perennially brings in one of the top recruiting classes in the United States.

Adding another school, especially a small one, means fewer big-ticket home dates.

“People want to see [teams] beat the Gophers. When you add teams, Minnesota comes to that community one less time periodically,” Maturi said. “There's a dollars and cents thing to look at. You can't get in because of the emotion of the situation.”

The WCHA will discuss Bemidji State at its annual meeting late this month. Eight teams would have to approve the Beavers joining the conference, and there have been rumblings that Alaska Anchorage will vote against it to avoid another trip east. Travel also could lead Denver and Colorado College to reject the proposal.

Being spurned by the WCHA also could have postseason consequences; the Beavers got into the NCAA tournament on College Hockey America's automatic bid, which came through a special exemption that allowed a bid for a champion of a conference with less than six teams. That's something Bemidji State wouldn't have as an independent.

Around Lake Bemidji, the subject casts a pall on what former coach Bob Peters recently told Serratore is the greatest time in Beavers hockey history. The program has 13 Division III and NAIA titles, but the spotlight has never been like this.

Goeb said the school isn't considering any other options right now, and for this week, even that topic is fairly taboo. All the Beavers can do is head to Verizon Center, try to win a championship and hope the WCHA - and failing that, another league - takes notice.

“We very rarely have brought up the entrance into the WCHA. [The players] read it enough on the Internet, in the newspapers - and quite honestly, we do, too,” Serratore said. “I hope we're not looking at that, because that is no motivation for us. Our only motivation is playing the best hockey we can this weekend.”

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