Don’t clean house.
When Mike Hastings was named head coach of the Minnesota State University men’s hockey team nine years ago, he reached out to his coaching mentors for advice about every detail that comes with being a head coach.
Those three words — “don’t clean house” — stuck with Hastings, primarily because of who said them. And those three words are a big reason why the Mavericks are three days away from their first-ever appearance in a Frozen Four. No. 5-ranked Minnesota State (22-4-1) faces in-state rival, No. 7-ranked St. Cloud State (19-10-0), at 4 p.m. Thursday in a national semifinal game at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. The game will be televised on ESPN2.
“I want to credit one guy first of all and that’s Dean Blais,” said Hastings, who was the associate head coach under Blais at Nebraska Omaha for three seasons prior to becoming MSU’s head coach. “When I was fortunate to get the job here, Dean said ‘do you know what you want to do for your (assistant coaches)?’
“I said ‘no, I have an idea of what I’d like to get done.’ He said ‘if I can just give you a suggestion, you don’t have to go in … everybody goes in, in today’s world like you have to go clean house. You know what, those are two pretty good (assistant coaches) who are in that program right now. Take your time, get a chance to know them, but you don’t have to go into that position saying you have to clean house.’
“Thank goodness I listened to Dean Blais.”
Hastings learned quickly how deeply Todd Knott and Darren Blue are embedded in the Minnesota State program, the university and the community.
Knott had been an assistant with the Mavericks for three seasons under previous head coach Troy Jutting when Hastings was hired in May of 2012. Blue had been on the Mavericks staff for more than a decade and his ties to MSU ran back another decade to when he was a defenseman at MSU from 1991-95.
“My experience with Todd and Darren, we’re all from the northern part of Minnesota, we’re all Section 8 guys,” said Hastings, who grew up in Crookston, while Knott is from Red Lake Falls and Blue grew up in East Grand Forks. “They’ve been very instrumental. … They allowed me to have some comfort here immediately because they were here before I was and so they made that transition a lot easier.
“I’m blessed that the university has allowed me to keep those guys around and support them the way they’ve supported me.”
‘A great place for student athletes’
Knott finished his playing career at Bemidji State in 2002, then spent six seasons in junior hockey, working with three teams as either an assistant coach or head coach. He had just completed his first season as the head coach and GM of the USHL’s Sioux City (Iowa) Musketeers in the spring of 2009 when the opening at Minnesota State arose.
As soon as Knott set foot on campus, he said he felt comfortable and at home. He felt like he could be a successful coach and recruiter for a program that was competitive in the WCHA, had a picturesque campus to attract student-athletes to, as well as an arena that was just seven years old.
Knott did not necessarily think about Frozen Fours or national championships, but rather helping to build the Mavericks’ program up and keep it competitive in a league that included college hockey powerhouses such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota.
“It wasn’t even in my mind at that point,” Knott said of the possibility of the Mavericks becoming a Frozen Four contender. “With the rat race of junior hockey, I thought this would be a great opportunity to call a place home. I’d moved around so much for a while, I looked at this as a place where I could succeed.
“Walking around campus, going through the interview process, I thought ‘this is very sellable’ because I knew a big part of my job would be recruiting. I thought this would be a great place for student athletes to come, and it slowly built up from there.”
Once hired, Knott also had the opportunity to work closely with Blue for the first time, and to learn about the pride Blue takes not only in the Mavericks’ on-ice success, but in the university, the community, the Mavericks’ history, and their home.
Blue played under legendary coach Don Brose at MSU and was a part of the program when lobbying efforts for the Civic Center to be built were going full speed ahead. Brose, Blue and his teammates were among the community members who helped to drum up support for the half-percent sales tax that was and is used for the construction and upkeep of the arena that opened in February of 1995.
“Unbelievable,” Knott, who was promoted to associate head coach in 2018, said. “When you talk about passion for the program and moving into this rink. He’s told the stories of going door-to-door to get this arena done. And now as a coach, the amount of work he’s done with alumni and all the little details, his prints are all over this, in terms of making this place our home.”
Going through the lows and the highs
Blue has the distinction of being the only member of the Mavericks’ coaching staff who was part of the program in the Division III era, and as it transitioned to Division II independent status in 1992, and as it built toward its first season in Division I, which started in the fall of 1996.
Following his college playing career, Blue spent three seasons as the head coach of the Chisago Lakes boys high school team, then one season coaching junior hockey with Bozeman (Montana) of the America West Hockey League.
He returned to Mankato as an assistant when Jutting was hired prior to the 2000-01 season, the Mavericks’ second season as a full-time member of the WCHA. Blue was on the bench for eight sub-.500 seasons in a nine-year span. He has also been on the bench for six regular-season conference championships, three postseason conference championships and MSU’s six first-round NCAA tournament losses.
So if anyone can appreciate what the first-round NCAA tournament victory against Quinnipiac on March 27, followed by the convincing 4-0 victory against Minnesota in the West Region final on March 28, meant to the program, its fan base and alumni, it’s Blue.
“It’s something you look back on think, I go all the way back to that first (national tournament appearance) in Providence in 2003,” Blue said. “We lost to Cornell and I think it was my third year, and you think it’s going to happen all the time, but you don’t realize how hard it is just to get to the national tournament. Then once you get there, you’ve created an expectation of getting there, and just how hard it is to get over the hump of winning a game.”
After needing a last-minute goal in the third period against Quinnipiac to get to overtime, then finding a way to win in the extra period, the Mavericks needed no dramatics against the Gophers. MSU played without question its best game of the season, controlling play from start to finish in the 4-0 shutout against Minnesota to earn the program’s first Frozen Four berth.
“It was great just to see not only the ability to get out and play games after the past year (and COVID concerns), but the battle and fight the guys had to turn the tides in those games and get the Ws,” Blue said. “When Quinnipiac scored their third goal (for a 3-1 lead in the third period), I can’t say there wasn’t some concern, but it was great to see the guys find a way to get the momentum back and find a way to get a win.
“We have an unbelievable group of alumni who’ve supported us through thick and thin. It was great for those guys who’ve worn the jersey and supported the program in different ways to feel a part of getting that monkey off our backs.”
Doing the heavy lifting
Hastings often talks about needing everyone in the program to be “pulling the rope in the same direction,” from coaches to players to trainers and equipment managers, in order to have success.
“They’re the ones who do all the heavy lifting,” Hastings said. “The guys who sit in the head coaches chairs understand it’s incredibly important who you surround yourself with.”
The mutual respect between the head coach, Knott, Blue and goalie coach Brennan Poderzay is evident when Hastings reflects on what those men have meant to Minnesota State.
“Darren Blue, the connections he’s had from the time I first got here … he’s been a part of Minnesota State University for an extended period of time,” Hastings said. “Todd Knott is one of the brightest hockey minds and recruiting coordinators that there is in the country. He’s done a phenomenal job of making sure we have the right fit there, as far as not only the right hockey players, but the right people that we bring in.”
As the Mavericks’ coaching staff sat in Knott’s hotel room on March 27 in Loveland, Colorado, preparing to face Quinnipiac in their NCAA tournament opener, the conversation was 100 percent focused on the task at hand. It’s been the same last week and this week as the Mavericks prepare to face St. Cloud State on Thursday.
The time to look back on a historical season will come soon enough.
“We talked about on (March 27) before the game that day,” Knott said. “I looked at coach sitting in my hotel room and said ‘I want nothing more than to be sitting here getting prepared for another game tomorrow.’ As coaches, it’s the process, the video preparation, the practice, you’re in your element as a coach.
“Hopefully once the season is over, we can take a log off the fire and look back at it.”