Bemidji State men’s hockey hosts Regina in Sunday exhibition and begin season after college hockey’s summer of change

Jordan George scores against Denver in the WCHA Final Five semifinal March 18.

College hockey’s offseason this summer was marked by unprecedented change when established programs from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and the Central Collegiate Hockey Association formed a pair of new leagues – first the Big Ten and then the National Collegiate Hockey Conference for the 2013-14 season.

The chain reaction continued when four CCHA teams joined the five remaining WCHA teams in August. The latest move came last week when St. Cloud State and Western Michigan joined the NCHC.

Amid the change – with more shifting speculated – the Bemidji State men’s hockey season arrives Sunday when the Beavers host the University of Regina in an exhibition at the Sanford Center at 5:07 p.m.

“It’s college sports in the new millennium and that’s what is happening right now,” BSU head coach Tom Serratore said of the conference changes. “You look at college football and college hockey took a page right out of their book. I can’t control what happened in college hockey. All I can control is how to get the Beavers ready.”

There is little time this year for the BSU to prepare for the regular season opener next week at Miami University in Ohio. The first official team practice was Saturday, though BSU abided by NCAA regulations and combined its two allowed weekly hours of preseason practice time for Friday’s unofficial first practice.

“It’s going to be interesting on Sunday because we will have only been on the ice for two days. I think we’ll be running around a little bit and we typically do during these exhibition games,” Serratore said.

Sunday’s game will not count in the record books. The BSU coaching staff will be evaluating special teams performance by the veterans and looking find ice time for the new freshmen.

The Beavers lost six seniors to graduation: Matt Read, Ian Lowe, Emil Billberg, Ryan Cramer, Ryan Adams and Dan MacIntyre. Read, who now plays with the Philadelphia Flyers, and Lowe were key contributors to the offense.

Jordan George, Jamie MacQueen, Shea Walters and Brad Hunt are expected to be offensive leaders but the Beavers will need contributions from other players.

Who those players are going to be at this point is unclear. BSU will have strengths this year on defense led by Hunt, Jake Areshenko and goalie Dan Bakala.

Serratore has a clear vision of what he wants the Beavers to look like in 2011-12.

“I know what our identity should be,” Serratore said. “We want outwork everybody, we want to make sure we execute and pay attention to details.”

There is more of a relaxed mood this week compared to this time last season when BSU practiced the first week at City Arena while final touches were put on the Sanford Center.

There were still visible signs of construction and student section bleachers were in boxes when the Beavers skated on the Sanford Center ice for the first time Oct. 10 in an intrasquad scrimmage.

“It’s way easier right now,” Serratore said. “We were just moving in last year and we never were very comfortable and we were in a rush all of the time. We have our offices set up now, the locker room is set up and from that standpoint we are very comfortable where we are at.”

As the Beavers season begins there is still some uncertainty in what the college hockey conferences will look like in 2013-14.

Current CCHA team Notre Dame is unlikely to play independent and is considering the NCHC or Hockey East. There are rumors Hockey East will expand by one team to 12 total teams should Notre Dame join Hockey East.

Bowling Green has an invitation in hand to the WCHA. MSU, Moorhead and the University of Buffalo (N.Y.) are exploring the possibility of staring Division I programs. Alabama-Huntsville currently plays as an independent and budget concerns threaten the program’s existence.

Huntsville, which used to play in College Hockey America with Bemidji State, has no guarantee for a future conference. WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod told the Huntsville Times newspaper last week that Huntsville’s situation is “much more difficult” if WCHA membership stays at 12 or under.

The WCHA in 2013-14 as it stands today will consist of eight teams: Bemidji State, Minnesota State University, Mankato, Alaska-Anchorage, Alaska-Fairbanks, Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State and Ferris State.

“We realize we’re going to have a strong league in a couple years and sometimes change isn’t all that bad,” Serratore said. “That’s how we have to look at things. The teams that we have in the WCHA are quality programs and have great coaches. It is what it is. That’s where we’re going to play and that’s what we are going to channel our energy to.”

Serratore said it was “difficult” to see St. Cloud State leave the WCHA because of the distance between the schools – 160 miles – and the loss of a “great rivalry.”

“It’s tough in one sense but then obviously in another sense it is going to be tough, new, challenging, exciting and that’s how we have to look at it,” Serratore said. “A lot of these teams we are still going to see as non-conference opponents. You can’t turn back the clock and all we can do is look to the future.”

Follow Eric Stromgren on Twitter at @estromgren and on Facebook.