During a typical summer, college hockey coaches are watching junior hockey tryout camps, bringing recruits on campus for visits or taking camps for top players in their national age bracket.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, basically none of that happened. So what St. Cloud State men's coach Brett Larson, and a handful of his colleagues did was, they took part in Zoom meetings together and discussed different things about coaching. Two of the other coaches were Minnesota State University-Mankato's Mike Hastings and Minnesota Duluth's Scott Sandelin.
"I was on a conference call this summer with Hasty, Sandelin, myself and (associate head coach) Jerry Keefe from Northeastern, who we worked with on the World Juniors staff, and we would have a different pro coach do a Zoom for us every other week," Larson said. "We kind of joked that our teams were either going to be better next year or they were going to be the most overcoached because all we had to do was think about things all summer."
Let's go with each team got better. The Huskies (19-10-0) are making their second trip to the Frozen Four, one season after being 13-15-6. St. Cloud State will play the Mavericks (22-4-1) at 4 p.m. April 8 (ESPN2) in the first of the two national semifinals games. MSU-Mankato snapped a six-game losing streak in the NCAA tournament and is playing in its first Frozen Four.
UMD (15-10-2) has won each of the last two national titles and is looking to play in its fourth straight national championship game. But the Bulldogs lost seven players from last season's team, including starting goalie Hunter Shepard and Hobey Baker Award winner Scott Perunovich on defense. UMD will play Massachusetts (18-5-4) at 8 p.m. April 8 (ESPN2) in the other semifinals. That will be a rematch from the 2019 national championship game.
The semifinals winners will play for the national title at 6 p.m. April 10 (ESPN).
Before all of that, the winner of the Spencer Penrose Award will be named on April 6. The Spencer Penrose Award goes to the CCM/AHCA Men’s Division I Hockey Coach of the Year. The finalists represent any coach who won or shared Coach of the Year honors in his conference this past season, as well as coaches whose teams have advanced to the 2021 NCAA Frozen Four. The only coach who has done both is Minnesota State's Hastings.
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Hastings is a former St. Cloud State player (1986-88) and assistant coach (1990-92, 1993-94). Hastings said that he and Larson spoke on the phone earlier this week, but doubts that the two of them will be talking much before meeting in the national semifinals.
"Growing up, he was a very accomplished hockey player," Hastings said of Larson, who played defense for Duluth Denfeld and then from 1991-95 for UMD. "With him having his (assistant coaching) time at Duluth and competing against him and then seeing him get the job at St. Cloud State, which is where I have my degree from — when you start having multiple experiences with somebody, you get to know them on different levels.
"I also shared some time with him at the (Team USA) World Junior .evaluation camp (in 2019) in Plymouth when Scotty (Sandelin) was taking the team after Scott was on my staff the year previously," said Hastings, who was Team USA's head coach and led the team to the silver medal. "I spent 5-6 days there with (Larson). It seems like success just seems to follow Brett. I'm excited for him. We talked a little bit (Monday). I'm very happy for him because he's just a quality individual and, obviously, he's doing a lot of the right things at St. Cloud State."
Larson was an assistant coach for Sandelin and Team USA at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championships. It was not his first time working with him, of course. Larson was an assistant coach for Sandelin at UMD from 2008-11 and 2015-18. Sandelin was also glad to see the Huskies make the Frozen Four on a couple levels.
"It's awesome because, No. 1, he's a great friend, and No. 2, they're a team in our league," Sandelin said of Larson and the Huskies. "They had a tough regional and they're all tough. But to beat BU and BC and do it the way they did, its shows what kind of team they are. I'm very happy for him to get to the Frozen Four and it's great to have all three Minnesota schools there.
"They've got a good chance. They've had a great year and it was tough to see them lose Easton" Brodzinski to a broken leg in the regional championship, Sandelin said. "But I thought they rallied around that and played great."
Success against 2 in the field
St. Cloud State played Massachusetts are 2-0 against the Minutemen, but haven't played them since 2002. The Huskies have played MSU-M and UMD plenty. The Huskies and Bulldogs have played seven times this season because of an unbalanced regular season schedule due to the pandemic and then playing one another in the NCH Frozen Faceoff semifinals.
Since Larson took over the Huskies in 2018, SCSU is 10-6, including 5-2 this season with three games decided in overtime and six games decided by one goal.
The Huskies played the Mavericks once last season, a 7-2 St. Cloud State win at the Mariucci Classic, but Larson was at the World Junior Championships and not with the Huskies. In the all-time series at the Division I level for MSU-M and SCSU that goes back to 1993, the Huskies are 27-18-7 against the Mavericks.
Hastings, who took the Mavericks job in 2012, is 3-6 in nine games against his alma mater. He sees a lot of similarities between the Huskies and Bulldogs.
"I feel like you could take the jersey and just turn from maroon to black," Hastings said. "They're about as honest as you get. (The Huskies) play in all three zones. They look like Duluth from a structural standpoint.
"Their forwards are creative. They're relentless. I hope Brodzinski is healing up well because that was not good to see. What you saw out of that team and the way that they were able to continue to play and stay on it when they lost someone like him ... I think says a lot about their group. Their defensive core is big, hard, mobile. (Nick) Perbix is good. (Goalie David) Hrenak is playing outstanding right now. They're well-coached. They're well-disciplined. They're going to be a hard out. That's what I'm expecting out of St. Cloud State."
Larson also knows that the Mavericks are going to be a tough opponent. MSU-M has won four straight WCHA regular season titles and is playing in its third straight NCAA tournament.
"They just played an amazing game to get into" the Frozen Four, Larson said, referring to the Mavericks' 4-0 win over Minnesota in the West Regional championship game. "They're well-prepared. They have a high work ethic. They've got a great game plan.
"(Hastings) is a guy I just have a ton of respect for. His teams play the right way. They play hard. They clearly play for each other and for him and his staff."