Bemidji State-Michigan Tech: Frigid Hockey Day Game Sets A New NCAA Record

There’s cold, and then there’s Minnesota cold. Zero degrees would have been considered balmy last weekend on the campus of Bemidji State University, where Hockey Day in Minnesota held a five-game fiesta over three days of arctic extremes. 

The newly constructed Hockey Day Arena was located just a slap shot from the frozen shore of Lake Bemidji. Despite concern for the health of everyone involved, the games were a roaring success, especially for the WCHA, the Division I league that had four member schools participating. The men’s game—Michigan Tech versus host Bemidji State—was played in prime time with temps plunging to 10 degrees below zero at puck drop. The fans (fanatics?) in the makeshift arena filled all 4,200 seats.

WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson, a Minnesota lifer, believes in the hearty stock from the State of Hockey. 

“That’s why they call this area of the country the Bold North, because people embrace winter in Minnesota.” The gregarious hockey man universally known as “Billy Rob,” found himself on the hot seat, as the polar vortex plunged down from the Arctic to lock the northwest in its icy grip days before the pucky celebration on the Bemidji tundra. His mobile device lit up with questions from the media, wondering how low could he go. 

“I started looking at it the weekend prior, we could see that it was going to be very cold,” said Robertson. So the man with the fattest rolodex in hockey began pounding his speed dial looking for a precedent, and Billy Rob discovered he was alone on thin ice. 

“I checked with my fellow commissioners to see if they had anything they’d ever done, or had any rules or regulations,” Robertson said. “A couple of them called me and said there are no rules on this.” 

He reviewed his paperwork from the NCAA rules editor; again no dice. 

“There wasn’t anything in the document that talked about temperatures, snow or rain.” 

Robertson, the former media chief of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, reached out to his old contacts in charge of NHL outdoor games. 

“They don’t have a format in place, anything etched in stone.”

So the three governing parties: Robertson, the Bemidji organizing committee and the BSU athletic department, put in a contingency plan to move the game indoors only under dire circumstances, and Robertson remained in constant contact with Bemidji State athletic director Tracy Dill. They carefully monitored local conditions for 72 hours prior to the frozen puck drop. He put WCHA boots on the hard ground in the form of his new communications director Todd Bell and women’s commissioner Katie Million, who both braved the sub-zero conditions. 

“If you dressed warmly, you were fine,” said Million, whose previous career was as an event manager at Lake Placid’s Winter Olympic venues, hanging around windy ski lifts at 30 below. 

WCHA media chief Bell attended St. Thomas College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he was student manager of the Tomcats football team. He knows Minnesotans’ passion for outdoor sports firsthand. 

“People are used to that kind of weather,” said Bell, who saw a contingent of ice fisherman on Lake Bemidji all weekend.

The Bemidji organizing committee had heated benches for the players, warming cabins with food and drink for the fans and emergency personnel surrounding the venue. A girls high school game was played Thursday evening, the two colleges practiced with no complaint and a decision was reached: GAME ON.

And why not? The wind was quiet, so there were no freakish wind-chill figures flying around. Both teams live well above the 45th parallel, surviving the worst Old Man Winter throws at them every year.

And with the Nordic hockey gods smiling upon them, the game evolved into a classic, with the Huskies and Beavers fully adapting to the extreme conditions by the end of the first period. 

“It was a great environment,” said Beavers coach Tom Serratore. “Obviously it was extremely cold, but it makes it even more memorable.”

One major difference from an indoor game was when pucks disappeared after being lofted high above the playing surface. 

“When the puck got up into the night sky, it got black,” said Tech coach Joe Shawhan. “The play got better as the game as the game went on. The ice held up fine; the crowd was into it, they stayed out and weathered it as well.”

The crowd wasn’t going anywhere, willing their beloved Beavers to come back three different times before finally sending this magical contest into overtime. And as if on script, the hero was a guy who learned to play hockey outdoors half a mile away, at the local Nymore Center. Bemidji senior Dillon Eichstadt converted a saucy pass from linemate Ross Armour, a skate-off goal that warmed the hearts of the 4,200 faithful and gave his hometown Beavers three cold-hard points in the WCHA pennant race.

“Definitely one of the coolest moments of my career,” said Eichstadt, in a grand understatement.

“It was a storybook ending,” said the indefatigable Billy Rob, who flew through the necessary homework to ascertain this outdoor game’s place in history.

“I did some research,” said the commish, trying to find an NCAA game that even approached the minus 10 degree temps recorded on the shores of Lake Bemidji last Friday. “I know there were a couple of games played at zero temperature. I know the University of Minnesota played a game at TCF Bank Stadium, six degrees at faceoff, wind chill below zero. But not at the level it was in Bemidji.” 

So it’s official: Last Friday’s game is the new low-mercury mark for outdoor NCAA hockey.

The extreme lows represented high risk for all the parties involved, but the hearty stock of the Bold North and the boys of winter from the WCHA made the 13th annual Hockey Day in Minnesota a historic success.

Minnesota State edged Bemidji state in Saturday’s women’s game, also played at temps below zero.

Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press, 2018). He can be reached @TeeRaps.

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