When asked about Akito Hirose back in early fall, Mike Hastings said the freshman was going to be thrown into the deep end right away.
So far, Hirose has proven to be an expert swimmer.
One of two heralded freshman defensemen on the Minnesota State University men’s hockey team, along with 6-foot-4, 205-pound Jake Livingstone, Hirose has picked up offensively where he left off last year in the British Columbia Hockey League.
“You’re always pleasantly surprised, but I’ll let you know, when we were recruiting Akito, the idea was he’d come in and make an immediate impact,” Hastings, the Mavericks’ ninth-year head coach, said last week.
Hirose is tied for third on the Mavericks with seven points through seven games, including six assists. He’s also running one of their power-play units. Perhaps that should come as no shock considering the 6-foot, 170-pound 21-year-old from Calgary honed his craft for four seasons in the BCHL, all with Salmon Arm. He was a captain for the Silverbacks last season, when he recorded 51 points in 57 games and was named the BCHL’s Top Defenseman and a First Team league All-Star.
“Akito is just a really smart player,” said Mavericks’ senior assistant captain Jack McNeely, who has been Hirose’s defensive partner in every game this season. “He puts himself in the right spots all around the ice, whether it’s offensviely or he’s an outlet in the defensive zone.”
Hirose has generated notice around the WCHA, too. He was voted as preseason Rookie of the Year by the league’s coaches, and was second in the media voting for preseason Rookie of the Year, behind only Michigan Tech forward Carson Bantle.
With three multi-point games already, he has twice been named the league’s Rookie of the Week, including a week ago after a one-goal, four-point weekend in MSU’s sweep at Northern Michigan.
“We’re excited about how he’s playing at this time,” Hastings said, “and you’re always excited about a freshman when they come in and they’re not intimidated by the environment. He’s taken it and ran with it.”
More than anything, Hastings said, that is what has most impressed him about Hirose so far -- the way he’s carried himself on and off the ice.
“One thing that’s great about Akito is his demeanor,” Hastings said. “He has expectations of success for himself every day.”
That poise and cool-under-fire demeanor runs in the family. Hirose’s older brother, Taro, a forward, recorded 116 points in three seasons at Michigan State (2016-19) and has 14 points in 36 games over the past two seasons for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings.
“Akito didn’t come in intimidated,” Hastings said. “He came in with his feet squarely on the ground, knowing he’d potentially have an opportunity to step in and play major minutes. With us losing the defensive corps we did from last year -- Ian Scheid, Connor Mackey, Edwin Hookenson -- there were going to be opportunities there for Akito.”
Hirose has made a positive impression on the team’s veterans, too, both with his calm manner and his ability to be a steady contributor in all situations. He has been a valuable asset to the Mavericks’ special teams and has been in a top-4 defenseman role in all seven games.
“He’s been awesome on the power play so far,” McNeely said. “That’s a big addition for us, for a freshman to come in and run one of our power play (units) up top … he’s been really good for us so far and hopefully he can just keep growing.”
Hastings said Hirose’s four seasons of junior hockey play got him ready to step in at the big-time college level.
“I think two things: No. 1, he had prepared himself when he came in,” Hastings said, “and No. 2, Scott (Atkinson), his coach in the B.C. league with Salmon Arm, had him very well prepared to come in here and play.”