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RinkRap spent the weekend catching up with Bemidji State, college hockey’s hottest team, and then taking in some hockey history in the Canadian Soo.
A late-season WCHA game between teams with a combined 44 losses became an international “event” this past Saturday, as Lake Superior State defeated Alabama-Huntsville 4-1 in front of 3,169 fans up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Moving the game to Canada was the brainstorm of LSSU athletic director Dr. David Paitson, a sports marketing savant reminiscent of the late Bill Veeck.
“In our community, we have only 14,000 people,” said Paitson, standing in front of a Wayne Gretzky poster in the bowels of the GFL Memorial Gardens. The Gardens is home to the historic major junior powerhouse Soo Greyhounds. “Over here you have 75,000 to 80,000 folks, and they all love their hockey. We’d like to get them to come over.”
The first step was to bring his product, NCAA hockey, into Canada — something done only once before in 2012, when North Dakota traveled three hours to Winnipeg to play Clarkson. This commute was far shorter, two miles across the famous Soo Locks as the seagull flies.
“My gosh, we have the closest proximity in the world from a Division I NCAA program to major junior,” said Paitson. “And there’s so much history. The thing to do is to try and bridge the gap.”
That is exactly what thousands of American Soo fans did, piling into their cars to cross the SSM International Bridge into their Canadian hockey twin for a prime-time hockey show that exceeded expectations.
There were also plenty of Canadian hockey fans in the Gardens that had never witnessed college hockey before.
“I heard it’s good, fast, clean hockey,” said local Gary Wenstrom. “They are playing here on the Canadian side, and my wife and I said, ‘Let’s go.’”
Halfway through a scoreless tie, Lake State ripped open a goaltending duel when American Sault product Ashton Calder scored on a brilliant breakaway finish. It punctured a two-game, 95-minute combined shutout streak between ‘Bama’s Mark Sinclair and the Lakers Mareks Mitens. The goal opened the proverbial floodgates, as the Lakers scored thrice in two and a half minutes to turn Memorial Gardens into a raging Laker Mardi Gras.
“It was amazing,” said local hero Calder. “Almost all our student section came. It was awesome, it was rowdy, and it was a fun time.”
That fun extended to Lakers’ locker room, where the boys in blue kicked off Saturday night’s celebration with their signature victory chant.
Coach Whitten acknowledged that this was no ordinary game.
“It felt big, great for our university and our twin communities. I think Dr. Paitson deserves a lot of credit for the vision behind this,” he said.
Whitten then turned his focus back to his heroes in gold and blue.
“I thought it was fitting that a Sault native [Ashton Calder] got us on the board. That broke the dam. And no disrespect to Mark Sinclair, who was awesome all weekend, but Mareks was save-for-save as good, or better.”
The WCHA playoffs will be a tough slog for the seventh-place Lakers. But their season will always be remembered for this snowy Saturday north of the border, when Lake Superior State merged the two Soos for an NCAA version of Hockey Night in Canada.
Break Up the Beavers
They have become college hockey’s “it” team.
Bemidji State has dropped but a single game since New Year’s, elbowing their way up to 13th in the national rankings. They spent the weekend in Marquette, Michigan, sweeping 19th-ranked Northern Michigan by a staggering 10-1 goal differential.
“There’s a vibe right now — I can tell because they know it,” said coach Tom Serratore the morning before his Beavers stunned Northern Michigan 5-0. “I’ve been around long enough where I can sense it. We have an outstanding leadership group and great kids. I can’t get them off the ice.”
The Beavers’ success is forged in details: faceoffs (53%), staying out of the penalty box (3 penalties/game), and a suffocating penalty kill (91.3%).
“Your best penalty killer is your goaltender, and our goaltender has been our MVP,” Serratore said, referring to junior Zach Driscoll, whose .936 save percentage is third in the nation.
Driscoll collected his third shutout of the season Friday, a tidy 21-save performance where nine different Beavers got inked onto the scoresheet. There’s a chicken-and-egg debate over which came first: Beaver wins or the team’s collective puck-love. Whatever the origin, it is now obvious to any observer that Bemidji State has caught lightning in a bottle.
“We’re such a tight-knit group, we just love winning games,” said co-captain Adam Brady, who blasted in two power-play goals just 38 seconds apart on Friday night. Brady knows that one individual is most responsible for the Beavers’ success: the masked man between the pipes. “Driscoll’s been awesome for us.”
“It’s the best thing ever, to see Driss’s face after we win,” said freshman defenseman Elias Rosen Friday night. “The D-Corps, we’re loving this. The playoffs are around the corner, and we want to keep going.”
If the season ended today, Bemidji would host Lake Superior in the first round. That fact is not lost on Lakers coach Damon Whitten.
“Bemidji is playing outstanding,” said Whitten, learning of the Beavers’ sweep minutes after his squad had beaten Alabama-Huntsville. “To go into Marquette and do what they just did, that’s a lot of well-played hockey right now. If you can avoid those [Bemidji or Minnesota State], you’re going to feel a little bit better.”
Bemidji has been on a relentless climb up the WCHA standings throughout the new year, and if they can avoid stubbing their toe against eighth-place Anchorage this coming weekend, they will finish the regular season hosting national #3 Minnesota State, with a chance to grasp the historic MacNaughton Cup as regular-season champions.
Elias may be a soft-spoken Swede, but he’s unafraid to state BSU’s collective goal.
“Have to keep going here, focus on getting number one, hopefully. It’s going to be great.”
Tim Rappleye is the author of Jack Parker's Wiseguys: The National Champion BU Terriers, the Blizzard of '78, and the Road to the Miracle on Ice. He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.