Mike Hastings should be preparing to coach a college hockey game this weekend.
Instead of getting the Minnesota State University, Mankato men’s hockey team ready for a season-opening exhibition game, the ninth-year head coach is in a holding pattern, like the rest of the college hockey world.
The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the opportunity for one of the best teams in program history to chase a national championship last spring and it is delaying the start of the 2020-21 season. MSU won its third consecutive WCHA regular-season championship and was ranked No. 3 in the final USCHO.com Division I national poll and No. 2 in the Pairwise rankings when last season was halted in late March.
The Mavericks went 23-4-1 in conference play, 31-5-2 overall and had two top-10 Hobey Baker Award candidates, forward Marc Michaelis and goaltender Dryden McKay. Michaelis, like MSU’s six other seniors and junior defenseman Connor Mackey, signed a pro contract after the WCHA playoffs and NCAA tournament were officially canceled.
Expectations haven’t changed at MSU, though.
In a conversation with The Rink Live this week Hastings talked about the tough-to-swallow end to the 2019-20 season, as well as his expectations for the season to come and his thoughts on the nine-player class of newcomers who will join the Mavericks this season.
TRL: In any other year, you’d be getting ready to coach in an exhibition game in a few days. Is your internal clock telling you it’s time to play some games?
Mike Hastings: Talk about crazy times; it’s almost October and we were watching the Stanley Cup Finals (Monday) night. I texted (MSU assistant) Todd Knott (Monday) night and said ‘how bad do you want to play a game with our guys right now?’ That piece of it isn’t any different than what you have with your guys in any given year. In our sport you try not to get too far ahead of yourself and our guys have done a good job of controlling what they can control.
TRL: Do you have a sense of what the season and schedule will look like once it gets going?
M.H.: In a perfect world for us, we’d start right around Thanksgiving time, around the 20th of November and try to get 8-10 games in before starting the (conference) season in January sometime. One positive is we have a couple of schools within our (Minnesota State Colleges and Universities) system -- Bemidji State and St. Cloud State -- and even though St. Cloud is in a different conference, we all stay in weekly contact. We’re trying to keep our lines of communication open and be as transparent as we can be.
TRL: How badly do your players want to play a game right now?
M.H.: I liken it to, both my kids are 18 or older, but I remember … hockey players want to play hockey games just like kids want to open gifts on Christmas. These guys have been waiting and waiting and waiting. They’re tired of waiting, but we try to put it in perspective. We’re fortunate to be preparing for a season. Other sports have had that taken away. We’re lucky to be where we’re at right now. To tell players that we expect to play in November, that gives them a starting date, something we hadn’t been able to give them in quite a while.
TRL: You weren’t able to truly, officially close the book on the 2019-20 season on the ice. How long did it take for that to sink in?
M.H.: I don’t know … the what-ifs will always be there. In today’s world you have to turn the page quickly or you don’t get to continue to write the book. We have guys right now -- Marc Michaelis (Vancouver) and Connor Mackey (Calgary) -- who signed NHL contracts, and a page just turned for them Monday night (with the end of the Stanley Cup Finals). Now they’re looking at ‘OK, when do we get to go to our NHL camps?’ All our seniors from last year signed pro contracts, so the page is turned and our group that’s back is saying ‘OK, now we get to write our book.’ … You’re never going to get an end to that story, unfortunately, other than we’re moving on.
TRL: Your senior class last year was seven-for-seven in signing pro deals, and Mackey was an eighth. Michaelis and Mackey were All-Americans and signed NHL deals. Parker Tuomie, Charlie Gerard, Ian Scheid, Nick Rivera, Edwin Hookenson and Josh French all signed pro deals. What made that class so special?
M.H.: Depth at all positions, and not just as far as ability, but character and caring for each other. That group really, they were playing for themselves but they had the unique gift of going through a process together. They were trying to re-write what happened the year before, in Providence, having our season end prematurely (in a 6-3 NCAA tournament first-round loss to Providence, after leading the game 3-0 in the first period). The 2019-20 season started not long after we lost that game in Providence. They were a driven, tight-knit group that trained and tried to be as focused as they could be. We had great leadership from those guys and it wasn’t just one or two or three of them. That group of seniors in four years won more games than any other group we’ve had.
TRL: You have a really strong class of newcomers this fall, with five freshmen and four transfers, including two grad transfers, forward Todd Burgess from Rensselaer and goalie Ryan Edquist from Boston College. Defenseman Sam Morton will have to sit because of transfer rules, but forward Brendan Furry will get to play after practicing all year last year due to transfer rules. How will those guys help?
M.H.: Burgess is coming in in fantastic shape and Edquist has come in and solidified our goaltending position, to give Dryden McKay a challenge to come back and have another good year. Morton, I Iook forward to his future here. All those guys, we really need them to make an impact sooner than the freshmen because they have more experience and have been around the block. With the seniors who left, the opportunity to come in and make an impact is right in front of them.
TRL: How does the dynamic change in the locker room and on the ice when you have such a big class leave the program?
M.H.: It’s different and it should be when you have nine new players. That’s a lot of change. When you start talking about turning over 30-plus percent of your roster, it’s going to be different, but that means lots of opportunities for guys. And it’s not just the new guys coming in, it’s opportunities for guys who’ve been here. (Defenseman) Andrew Carroll had a tremendous summer. With Mackey, Scheid and Hookenson gone -- three guys who played major minutes -- we need guys to step in and step up.
TRL: Two of your freshmen defensemen come in after starring in the British Columbia Hockey League. Akito Hirose was the BCHL Defenseman of the Year, while Jake Livingstone was a BCHL All-Star and his team’s MVP. How big of a role will those two need to play?
M.H.: When we recruited them it was to come here and make an impact right away. They’ll have that opportunity. As freshmen do, they’re learning every day. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, sometimes it’s one step back. I love their attitudes, and their expectations of themselves are as great or greater than anything we have as a staff. They’ve controlled what they can control -- their preparation. … The last time we were together as a team (last season), we had Mackey, Hookenson and Scheid. The best thing we could’ve done as a staff was to just get out of their way. Now it’s just a little bit different.
TRL: You have three veteran defensemen for those guys to lean on, too.
M.H.: Our older guys, Jack McNeely, Riese Zmolek and Andrew Carroll, have done a really good job of taking the young guys under their wings and saying ‘follow me and I’ll help you with whatever you need.’ We’ve relied upon McKay and our defensive corps a lot to keep us in games -- and we didn’t give up a lot (of goals or scoring chances last year). We had that depth on ‘D’ and the firepower up front to score.
TRL: Up front, you lost a lot of scoring, but you still have a bunch of veterans who showed they can produce offense. Jake Jaremko (16 points), Jared Spooner (19), Reggie Lutz (24), Walker Duehr (15), Dallas Gerads (25), Julian Napravnik (25), in what ways do you need those guys to be leaders?
M.H.: The shoes are empty that they need to fill. Who’s going to be our most consistent every-dayer offensively? Marc Michaelis turned himself into a 200-foot player who, it didn’t matter if the arm went up for us or against us, he was going over the boards in some type of role, power play or penalty kill. Jake had some challenges last year health-wise. Can he provide that consistency as a senior that we had with the group that left? Every day, not just game days, but Monday through Thursday we didn’t have many bad days on the practice rink last year because those seniors were driving the bus. Now Gerads, Spooner, Napravnik, Lutz, those guys need to step into those top-six roles and be the ones pushing the envelope every day while being productive and also being responsible at the other end of the rink. Those guys last year brought energy every day no matter what. That’s the biggest challenge for our group, how do they bring what we need to have to get better every day?
TRL: Lucas Sowder (31 points) and Nathan Smith (27) were about as good as it gets as freshmen. What’s the next step they can take as sophomores?
M.H.: Can they find a way to be the every-day player where they don’t have any gaps in their success? Lucas Sowder is one of the best players we’ve had since we started skating this fall. What I said about upperclassmen bringing energy, he walks in every day with a smile on his face and that gets passed around the room. He brings energy and emotion and compete. And it’s all positive, every day. Those two guys are special players and now the biggest question is when that coin gets flipped, are they happy with what they did as freshmen or are they willing to put the time in to push that to a new level? … You have to find a way to reinvent yourself every year.
TRL: Most college hockey coaches would love a Dryden McKay-Ryan Edquist 1-2 punch in net. Edquist (a Lakeville native) was behind another of the best goalies in the country at Boston College, Spencer Knight. What made him want to come to MSU for his final season and battle with McKay for time in net?
M.H.: We drew on some history with Ryan. Our goalie coach Brennan Poderzay knows all the goalies in the area and their history and we leaned on him quite a bit in the evaluation process. Ryan has been behind not just good goalies, but a couple of world-class goalies at B.C. From that standpoint, he wanted an opportunity. I believe our job with him is to give him the opportunity to compete with McKay. … And the thing about Dryden, he doesn’t want to give up his net. It says a lot about Ryan Edquist to say ‘you know what? I’ll go compete against that every day.’ Ryan only has one year. He wants to play. I appreciate that mentality. It’s going to make our goaltending situation competitive, which you want, just like with your defensemen and guys up front. We don’t want guys to get too comfortable. Competition keeps you sharp and allows you to get better every day. A lot of guys would’ve said ‘I’ll go somewhere easier, somewhere there isn’t a Dryden McKay.’ Ryan didn’t do that.
TRL: Dryden was a top-10 Hobey candidate, a First Team All-American and led the country in wins (30), goals-against average (1.31), save percentage (.942) and shutouts (10). What are his personality traits that make him such a special player?
M.H.: He’s an even-keel guy. There’s not a lot of peak-and-valley to him. He’s just … a little bit of that calm water for us. I do think internally there’s a fire that burns on the competitive side of things. He’s a guy, if I’m a forward or a defenseman, you like him because he’s not pointing fingers. When things don’t go well he’s good at pointing thumbs and saying ‘I need to look at myself and be better.’ He has a high opinion of himself and not in an arrogant way, but in a confident way. He wants to play every game here and continue to write his story.