'I wish there was hockey right now,' says Luke Strand, as his first Mavericks team comes together
Four months before the Mavs will take the ice for their first practice, new MSU Mankato men's coach Luke Strand has alumni and the community excited about building on past successes with new faces.
MANKATO, Minn. — Perhaps it was perfect timing that on the way into the Don Brose Training Center to meet with Luke Strand and talk about his new job as the head men’s hockey coach at Minnesota State Mankato, three Mavericks players hustled across the parking lot on a rainy Thursday morning to get in a workout at the team’s home rink. The rumors that there are no hockey players left to wear purple next season were vastly overblown.
It is true that Strand — who a year ago at this time was leading the Sioux City Musketeers to a USHL title, before spending one season as an assistant coach at Ohio State — has dealt with players transferring and previously committed players deciding that purple was not their color since former Mavs coach Mike Hastings departed for Wisconsin in late March. A few days after he spoke to The Rink Live about how he got here, and where the Mavs are going with him at the helm, MSU assistant coach Paul Kirtland announced he was also leaving Mankato to take Strand’s old job, as an Ohio State assistant coach.
Still, in the era of the transfer portal, and with a program like MSU to sell to recruits, the new head Mav was accepting of where his roster sits five months before they play a real game.
“I think it's got a good balance. We're going to miss some guys that were committed, which is part of the deal, but we're going to replace them with portal kids that could come in and play,” Strand said, in an interview at his new downtown Mankato office. “I think they're going to give us balance. They'll give us a lot of substance right away and at the end of the day, count on the guys that are here that stay. They've earned this opportunity to be counted on and that’s a good direction to go.”
MSU has dominated its conference in recent years, winning either the now-defunct men's WCHA or the CCHA six years in a row. They have also seen the program's initial Frozen Four trip, their first Hobey Baker Award winner and their first trip to the Division I NCAA title game all since 2021. Strand, 50, admits that with the roster and coaching staff turnover, the coming season might be one where opponents are hungry for revenge on the program that has handed them many recent losses. The new coach acknowledges that may lead to a feeling of “blood in the water” for opponents who have lost to the Mavericks in recent years. Strand relishes that reputation as the team that everyone wants to beat, and the challenge that will come along with it, as soon as October.
The unreal part here is the extended family that's connected to this program in town that really want to assist. They want to help.
“I'm sure the team in purple here has got a target on their back no matter what,” he said. “They’ve earned it so we're going to get everyone's best because everyone's going to think this is their chance to probably knock off what's here. I think that internally we're on the other side of that, we know what's coming and we want to defend our side of it too.”
As a first time head coach in college, Strand did the required April travel and went to the national coaching convention in Florida. But with now-former Mavericks transferring and formerly committed incoming Mavericks switching their destinations, he admits that concentrating on what was happening in Naples was tough, with the nagging feeling that the house was on fire back in Mankato.
To fight that idea that the cupboard has been left bare near the big bend in the Minnesota River, Strand offered a “for your eyes only” glance at the depth chart on his computer screen. It showed just one blank space remaining, and between players in the portal and others who had previously committed to MSU, there were plenty of options for filling that particular purple sweater.
As for who will fill the stands in their downtown Mankato rink, there seem to be no worries about selling tickets, even with a new coach behind the home bench. The school held a reception in the Twin Cities for alumni of the hockey program and it was packed, from players who were All Americans back in their Division III days to recent super stars like Nathan Smith and Jake Livingstone. Closer to home, the school announced an early May event in Mankato where season ticket holders could come meet the new coach.
“People came out on May 7, and they came out like it was September 13, which is incredible,” Strand said. “It's the respect level that the program has around the community and the campus community. But even more so it’s the expectation level … For me as a coach, that's exciting.”
Mixed in with all of that excitement about the future has been the mundane day-to-day reality that comes with life for a coach getting mail in his third state — Iowa, then Ohio and now Minnesota — over the past three hockey seasons. The house he had under construction in Columbus was sold at a loss. (“That didn't taste very good, but that's how it goes. Ouch,” he joked at the fiscal loss.) A temporary home in Mankato was found, for a year until his fiancé moves to town. He quickly learned that in a high-profile position like coaching the Mavs, in a close-knit community like Mankato, you’re never on your own when there are hurdles.
“The unreal part here is the extended family that's connected to this program in town that really want to assist,” Strand said. “They want to help.”
Ward Joins Maverick Coaching Staffhttps://t.co/zETwZi0Wch pic.twitter.com/ixtGVdJrhX— Minnesota State Hockey (@MinnStMHockey) May 22, 2023
Still, he motioned to the sofa in his office at the rink, and insinuated that it has been used as his bedroom on more than one occasion in Strand’s first month on the job. While most hockey people are a little burned out by the spring and long for a day or two away from the rink, Strand admitted that being on the ice with a whistle, running his team through a practice, is what he's longing for most fervently.
“I wish there was hockey right now,” he said. “It’s probably helped me or will help me in the long run that there’s not hockey going on and this is the sole focus on this part. But the distraction of having hockey going on would be immediately a great response.”
The hockey will come soon enough. His first group of Mavericks will be on the ice together in four months. Before that, Strand is expected to be named Team USA’s head coach for the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup tournament, which will have him working with some of the nation’s best young players in Europe in late July and early August.
When he is away from the rink, Strand’s tastes are pretty simple: reading, fishing, cruising on his pontoon. This year, add recruiting, hiring assistant coaches and planning a wedding — be it a gala event or a simple trip to the Blue Earth County courthouse — to the calendar. And before he can blink, Strand will be back from Europe, on the ice in Mankato, watching the next edition of Maverick hockey bring newbies and veterans together on a freshly-resurfaced ice sheet that is like a blank canvas. As much as it will be a thrill for Strand to see the puck drop for his team’s first game, that first practice with his Mavericks is a moment he admits has been part of Strand’s dreams.
“It'll be fun because they’re going to see the whites of their eyes here together, which will be powerful for me,” he said. “The guys who returned have a huge job to do and as far as what’s been done and why and how we can make it better.”