Saturday afternoon found me tossing my stuff into the car, preparing for a trip into the unknown. Don’t get me wrong, I knew where I was going. I’d just never been there before and had no clue what to expect.
Bemidji is beautiful. It’s clean, easy to get around in, right on the water—there’s plenty to like. It’s also really, really far up there. I’d never been this far north before, and hadn’t anticipated saying “I’m northeast of Fargo” in a phone call with my Dad.
My plan was to buy a hoodie with each stop on the trip. That was thwarted at Minnesota State, since the one I wanted wasn’t available, and I struck out in Bemidji too, settling on a short-sleeve T-shirt. Considering how cold the weather was on this final Saturday in October, I instantly regretted that purchase with the kind of regret that is usually reserved for those ordering a Shake Weight™ off late night TV. This was going to have to be changed, stat.
After taking a selfie with the city’s two best-known natives, Paul Bunyan and Babe The Blue Ox, I headed for Sanford Center, still about two hours before face-off. I arrived, parked and noticed the cars surrounding me each had a college-age girl behind the wheel, sporting heavy makeup. At once, almost as if they’d simultaneously gotten an order via their phones, they popped the trunks, got out of the cars, and grabbed pom-poms before walking in. Yes, I was cheerleader-level early for this one.
I made a half-walk-half-sprint across the parking lot to the front door, urged along by the temperature and the stiff north wind, and went directly to the ticket window. There were a slew of options available, a full half-dozen ticket options ranging from $12 to $29. I selected the cheapest seat they had, presuming I’d be surrounded by the rowdiest fans in the joint.
The next stop was the Beaver Dam team store, fully stocked with any number of Bemidji State gifts along with apparel. Much of what was available for sale was, admittedly, a bit of a shock to the wallet. I get that the arena is not the cheapest place to buy gear and gifts, but I wouldn’t expect a hoodie to be $50 AFTER a 20% sale discount, either. I settled on a long-sleeve t-shirt and headed for the men’s room to change.
Sanford Center is a beauty. Colorful tile stretches along the floor with high, arching ceilings. This is a world-class facility that any program would be lucky to have. My search for a men’s room bore fruit in the form of a sign reading “Ininiwag”, which I quickly Googled to discover is part of the Ojibwe language, native to the region.
Change of shirt complete, I discovered a trophy case at the end of a hallway loaded with momentos from past seasons, while further up the walkway is the WCHA’s Mother lode, the MacNaughton Cup.
It’s probably best that I pause here and tell you a bit about these kinds of artisan traveling trophies. They’re not simply inanimate objects. They are works of art, worthy of the care and protection that they command. If a sailor will refer to his ship as a “she”, then it’s only right to do the same thing with something as precious as the MacNaughton Cup. She is beautiful. Radiant. Strong. And getting to be in its presence was one of the highlights of the weekend.
Finally, hockey time. As the puck dropped I was somewhat disappointed in the attendance in the section that was labeled “LOGJAM” on my ticket, as it appeared these fans decided to spring for nicer seats. The vantage point I had wasn’t bad at all, about even with the faceoff circles. After singing the fight song as the band played, the crowd settled down tremendously following the opening faceoff. It was almost….quiet. Even the student section, which had its outbursts, mostly fell quiet while the puck was in play.
Usually a quiet crowd is a disinterested one. They’re playing around on their phone, walking around the concourse, basically doing anything other than paying attention. That wasn’t the case in Bemidji. It was clear that this was a crowd very much invested in the game, and they were quiet because they were watching the every move made by their own team and the Ferris State squad, as well. It reminded me of a hockey fan/philosopher I met during my first voyage to Lake Superior State, who quipped “When people holler, that’s because they don’t understand the game.” These people understood the game, and that’s why they kept quiet.
A scoreless first period gave way to a buzzing concourse, with most conversations I overheard revolving around missed opportunities to score in the first 20 minutes. This crowd was latched on to the game at hand, no question.
The second period followed much the same vibe as the first – occasional “oohs” and “ahhs” from the crowd as scoreless play continued – until Bemidji State opened the scoring at 18:32. The goal horn blared and the band played the fight song again as the whole crowd jumped up and clapped along in rhythm.
“B-E-M-I-D-J-I! Bemidji! Bemidji! Gooooooooooooo BEAVERS!!!” they yelled in unison at the end of the song, and right as the puck dropped again. The crowd settled back into their seats and the moment dissipated almost as quickly as it came. This batch of fans was truly focused on the play on the ice.
The formula continued to be the same through the final period, as the Beavers tacked on a pair of insurance goals and sent the crowd back to the concourse, still buzzing about the 3-0 game they’d just witnessed. You can tell this is a loyal fan base, yes, but their reserved nature can be mistaken for apathy unless you look closely.
As I walked out the door marked “Miigwech” (“Thank you”), I wanted to thank this fan base personally for being such good stewards of the game and the MacNaughton Cup their team defends. They’re a world-class group of hockey loyalists, as top-notch as the team on the ice and the facility they call home.