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A happy weekend for the WCHA shows the line between winning and losing is closer than perception

WCHA foes Bemidji State and Minnesota State met in the North Star College Cup championship. The real winner was WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson and a conference fighting perception with wins on the ice.

Matt Christians

Walking through the press box of a building he knows quite well, there may have been no person happier in downtown Saint Paul on Saturday than WCHA Commissioner Bill Robertson.

"May" because it's hard to say. There were an announced 14,000 people at Xcel Energy Center watching two college hockey games which saw Bemidji State claim the 2nd annual North Star College Cup contested between the Minnesota D1 men's hockey schools. The NHL tenants were celebrating the official announcement that it reached the ever-moving goalposts of hosting an outdoor game.

Plus there was a Sam Smith concert next door. And a parade happened earlier. And a reported 140,000 people were nearby Saturday night watching a Crashed Ice event going the streets of downtown.

And a cat show. Can't forget the cat show.

So there's a lot of competition for the happiest person in a downtown St. Paul containing the population of a small metro. Robertson, talking and taking in the action, could take the cake. He was the only person who watching the North Star College Cup championship game had already won regardless of the team that did.

The North Star College Cup championship featured not the fourth all-maroon and gold match-up promoted in radio advertisements -that was the earlier game - but one Bemidji State defenseman Sam Windle was not looking forward to after the Beavers' 4-0 win over Minnesota-Duluth Friday.

"We'll see Minnesota State again in conference so I'd rather play the Gophers tomorrow night," said Windle, from nearby Maple Grove who in front of 10 friends and family members scored his first goal in a year.

Bemidji State and Minnesota State are both members of the WCHA, the remaining leftovers from college hockey realigning in a way where it was left with a name and an iconic trophy. Until two seasons ago so were Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth (as was the fifth D1 men's team in the state - St. Cloud State) before both departed for perceived greener, richer pastures in the Big Ten and NCHC, respectively.

Every pilgrim reaches the end of their journey. For the WCHA in 2013 the perception was that the once-flagship western conference was closer to the decline of the Roman Empire than its rise.

Yet besides polls perception isn't always reality. It's why hockey is decided on ice rather than through market size or soundbites. It's one any team can play on a 200 foot sheet regardless of the money it has from TV revenue or number of seats as seen in recent NCAA Tournaments. Parity is here. Small ECAC schools Union and Yale (as the last at-large bid in an-all ECAC final with Quinnipiac) have won the championship over consistent contenders Minnesota, Boston College and North Dakota.

The reality is the WCHA may not have the same depth, but the "also-rans" of the West aren't sitting there lying about and doing nothing like cats in a cat show.

"Watching Bemidji I thought they played incredibly hard," Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings said after Friday's 4-2 win over Minnesota about his opponent the next night. "It's two teams that are battling. We'll see them and they'll be ready for us."

There might be no better example of hard work than Hastings and the Mavericks.  The team from Mankato, Minnesota has made the NCAA Tournament in each of Hastings' first two seasons (one pre-realignment, one post) and this season entered the North Star as the #1 team in the country in both the Pairwise and polls.

All four games in St. Paul were hard fought with scraps and schools fighting for the honor of being unofficially called the state's best. The fans were treated to a pair of penalty shots (both stopped). Those in the two purple and gold sections in the lower bowl made up for being out-numbered Friday night by chanting "Let's Go Mavericks" louder than the Minnesota fans looking at loss number seven in a 13 game span.

(Number 8 came the next night, leaving the Gopher players wanting to forget the weekend as a whole.)

Still, the questions remained if the Mavericks, 14-2-1 in the last 17 games, were worthy of being the number one team in the country before falling at Xcel Energy Center to not Minnesota nor Minnesota-Duluth, but conference-mate Bemidji State.

"You take a look at the field, three of the best teams in the country were in this field and we were fortunate enough to come out of here winning this tournament," said BSU head coach Tom Serratore. "I think any time you win a tournament, any time you win a trophy, that's a feather in a player's cap and you hope you can build upon it. I'm especially proud of this trophy for the guys because I think in a situation like this they played hard. These guys earned it."

The Beavers, the unlikeliest of the four to bring home the chalice fit for Paul Bunyan back from a name and record (9-12-3) perspective, is on top of Minnesota college hockey for the first time since a Frozen Four appearance in 2009.

BSU did just that a week after being swept on the road by Lake Superior State.

Serratore's team wanted to come in and give all they had for a pair of upsets. Freshman goaltender Michael Bitzer, who had an individual performance for the ages at the X in high school for Moorhead, did so again in the North Star, stopping all but one shot (including a penalty shot) over two games.

At the same time it wasn't just Bitzer, who made sure to credit his defense for blocking shots. Bemidji State had fewer shot attempts in all but one period and made the most of the chances it had. The penalty kill twice had to kill a five minute major against top-ten teams and keep momentum throughout the two-game weekend that was missing in being swept by Lake Superior State.

The Beavers previously showed this before with a season-opening win against North Dakota.

"I'd put this above (beating UND)," Windle said. "That one felt good to beat them, but it's fun to get into this tournament and make a name for ourselves and show a lot of people."

That's what Bemidji, what Robertston, what the WCHA with 3 teams in the Pairwise top 10 would like to take a close second to state pride. There is so much going around all of us it can be hard to stand out and be happy.

The WCHA may not be winning attendance awards with the teams left. The name value of the schools may not be getting it on television or filling up the X for the Final Five in two months as easily as it once did. That doesn't matter for one weekend, however, as the difference between winning and losing, like all teams in college hockey, is much closer than it appears regardless of conference.

"It's a heck of a league. That team right there that we played - best team in the country," Serratore about Minnesota State and the WCHA. "In college hockey there's a lot of parity. There's a fine line between winning and losing, and anybody can beat anybody on any given night.

"It doesn't matter what league we're in. It matters how we play and how hard we compete."

For that, the reality is the Beavers were able to take whatever perception there was and be the ones to celebrate with the trophy at Xcel Energy Center in front of their section of fans clad in green.

Of course, that's the WCHA on the ice. Perception-wise, Minnesota-Duluth was not punished in the polls for losing to Bemidji State, which still must play well down the stretch to be in the WCHA playoffs, let alone the NCAA Tournament.

The Mavericks, still first in the Pairwise, fell from 1 to 3.

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter --