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Frozen Four: Bemidji Event Center enthusiasm builds on hockey success

More than 1,700 Frozen Four T-shirts were sold at the Bemidji State University Bookstore. Junior Angela Kirkes bought her souvenir shirt from clerk Molly Krivarchka Thursday. (Monte Draper/Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI - It seems perhaps too cliché, too perfectly planned out.

A small-town hockey team, unsure of its future, defies expectations and defeats much larger rivals to earn a berth into the national collegiate hockey tournament. There, the team solidly defeats its opponents, including one that was expected to make it to the finals.

Instead, the small-town heroes clinch an appearance in the national semifinals, securing both an entrance into an elite conference and a new arena along the way.

Welcome to Bemidji.

"The best of authors could not have written a script like we are experiencing right here in Bemidji," said Mayor Richard Lehmann.

Ever since the Bemidji State University men's hockey team ran through the regional championships last weekend, securing a spot in the Frozen Four next week, support for the Beavers has rampantly been spreading through town.

The Beavers' future, as recently as late 2007, was unknown. Their conference, the dwindling College Hockey America, had been reduced to four teams. Their dream of a possible entrance to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, one of the premier leagues in the country, hinged on a new arena being built. But the Bemidji City Council was divided on the issue and was unsure if it would be willing to spend millions of dollars toward an event center.

All those concerns now seem distant.

Groundbreaking is taking place today on the Bemidji Regional Event Center, the facility at which the Beavers will be the anchor tenant beginning with the 2010-2011 hockey season. And, WCHA representatives are in town for a previously scheduled site visit.

While entrance into the WCHA is far from guaranteed, BSU's Frozen Four appearance certainly won't hurt its chances.

"We couldn't have written a better script," said Rob Bollinger, executive director of the BSU Foundation. "With everything that is happening, the stars are just aligning."

A rally planned for 5 p.m. today in Room 100 of Memorial Hall at BSU was originally expected to be a rally to show support for entrance into the WCHA.

"Now it ends up being a pep rally for the team," Bollinger said.

The recent success of the hockey team is building even more support for the BREC. The Beavers are expected to open play in the event center for the 2010-11 season.

A Priority Seating Plan already has been established on how seats will be determined in the new arena.

Bollinger said the process will reward existing supporters while also taking into consideration the different ways an individual can demonstrate that support.

Points will be awarded based on the following:

--Beaver Pride level for the 2009-2010 season.

--Lifetime contributions to BSU athletics.

--Lifetime contributions to BSU.

--Volunteer service to BSU athletics.

--Years of season tickets for BSU hockey.

--Support of move to Division I hockey in 1999.

--BSU alumni.

--BSU alumni athlete.

"We're trying to reward people in every category," Bollinger said, noting that meetings will be held throughout the next year to explain the plan to the public.

The new, 193,000-square-foot arena will have 4,000 seats, including 25 suites and 250 club seats. The arena will be twice the size of the John Glas Fieldhouse, where the Beavers now play.

Because of the combination of the team's recent success, the new arena and expanded marketing plan, Bollinger said the university expects increased interest from new supporters.

The Priority Seating Plan is intended to meet the needs of new fans, but also reward those who have backed the Beavers in the past.

"We don't want to forget the people who have been supportive of us," he said.

Enthusiasm for Beaver hockey climaxed this week following the Beavers' 4-1 win over Cornell University for the Midwest Regional championship.

The win secured an appearance in next week's Frozen Four, which the Beavers will open at 4 p.m. April 9 in Washington, D.C., against Miami of Ohio.

Bollinger said the university was immediately flooded with phone calls from fans seeking Frozen Four tickets.

Each school is given 600 tickets, he said. BSU has fielded more than 800 requests. Awarding of those tickets will be finalized today, with preference given to university supporters.

Bollinger acknowledged that some of the phone calls came from Ohio and Boston (where top-seeded Boston University is, obviously, located). But, BSU screeners took information such as phone numbers and Bemidji connections while considering ticket eligibility.

This week may be a blur of activity, but Bollinger said it is an exciting time for Bemidji.

"It's just incredible timing for everything," he said. "It's good for hockey, good for enrollment and BSU, and it's good for the city.

"It's just great to be part of something so positive."