October 12, 2004
Postcard: Brighter Days Ahead in Bemidji?

By Jess Myers

On a warm weekday afternoon, the campus of Bemidji State University is ablaze with fall color. On the western shore of Lake Bemidji, the school's red and brown brick buildings are surrounded by a forest of birches, oaks and maples flashing the fiery reds, oranges and yellows of October, topped by the green of the stunning Norway pines towering overhead, many of them more than 100 years old.

On this day, a steady ceiling of off-white clouds rolls in across the lake as a few fishermen troll for a few final open-water walleyes and mentally prepare for the ice houses that will dot the frozen white expanse soon. None of the clouds look like they'll bring storms to BSU, and inside the school's hockey office, that's a welcome change.

Just around the corner and down the hall from the BSU coaches' offices is a display case that holds the fruits of labor on another frozen white expanse –
specifically the six NCAA hockey championship trophies the school won on the Division II and III levels. Today those monuments are like big fish caught a long time ago – nice memories, but with little significance in the present day.

Beavers coach Tom Serratore was a member of a BSU national championship team in the 1986. Less than two decades later, he's running the show as his alma mater finds its way as a D-I program. Inside his tidy, cozy office with brick painted white on one wall, Serratore is quick to smile and welcome a visitor, despite admitting to having a few things weighing on his mind these days.

As David Letterman used to say of Bill Clinton during the depths of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, "I wouldn't give his troubles to a monkey on a rock."

The Beavers' season opener versus Ferris State is still a few weeks away, but Serratore feels like he's dealt with a season's worth of challenges already. His
top goalie's got a sore knee. The future of his hockey conference is uncertain at best. His team doesn't have Minnesota on the schedule this season when the Beavers might have a team good enough to record the school's first-ever win over the Golden Gophers. And the darkest cloud hanging over Serratore's team is the situation with one-time Beavers forward Riley Riddell.

There's already been a mention of the Beaver hockey program on the front page of most Minnesota newspapers this season, but it's not anything you'll find in Serratore's scrapbook. Riddell and two other BSU students have been charged with sexual assault in a case that's expected to produce ugly headlines for the next six to nine months. Riddell, the Beavers' second-leading scorer last year, has been suspended from the team, and Serratore said he doesn't expect him back.

It's not a topic that the coach or his guest care to dwell on. Serratore talks more openly about the uncertain future of the College Hockey America conference, in which the Beavers are favored to repeat as regular season champions. The league has six teams, which is the minimum to gain an NCAA berth, but that could change at the end of the season with Air Force
and Niagara eyeing other conferences. Serratore, the league's coach of the year last season, says quite openly that without the CHA, it would be hard for the sport to expand for lack of conferences willing to accept new teams. Indeed, the league welcomed the nation's newest D-I team, Robert Morris, with open arms and has given the Colonials a chance to compete for a NCAA berth in their first season.

One can tell in even a brief conversation with Serratore that despite the many negatives one could dwell on in Bemidji these days, he's eternally a "glass is half full" kind of guy. He speaks with guarded optimism about the season to come, and Serratore's smile makes his dark mustache perk up when he reaches into an oversized filing cabinet to show off the Beavers' sharp new third sweater. He remains optimistic that if the right man gets elected to the
state legislature from Bemidji in November, the hoped-for new arena in Bemidji could take a step closer to being a reality. And Serratore is hopeful that in March, when the Beavers host the CHA tournament just down Highway 2 in Grand Rapids, his team can secure its first D-I trip to the NCAAs.

The toothy smile that lights up Serratore's office rarely dims during the visitor's time there, and the coach gives a thankful handshake before heading off to a meeting with his assistants.

Maybe, occasionally, the same Mother Nature that can be so harsh on northern Minnesotans each winter gets a whiff of that Serratore optimism in the face of adversity. By the time the visitor exits the athletic offices and heads down the hill toward Diamond Point and the lake, the sky is lighter as the sun is threatening to poke through that layer of clouds.

For a moment, the blazing fall colors seem just a bit brighter in the home of the Beavers.

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