'It's getting closer to normal': An in-depth Q&A with Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings on last season and the season ahead
Minnesota State University is coming off a season in which it battled COVID-19-related delays and reschedulings, stops and starts, and ultimately its first-ever trip to the NCAA Division I Frozen Four. What's in store for the 2021-22 season? Mavericks head coach Mike Hastings said he's excited to find out.
Mike Hastings and the Minnesota State University men’s hockey team are ready to turn the page.
A new season. A new conference. A new confidence.
The offseason was short for the Mavericks, who earned the first two NCAA Division I tournament victories in program history and qualified for the Frozen Four for the first time last spring.
For Hastings, there was a brief time for reflection — How do we get over the heartbreak of a 5-4 loss to in-state rival St. Cloud State on a last-minute goal in the national semifinals? How do we get back to the Frozen Four again? — and a family vacation to San Diego, before roster decisions had to be made, a hefty 2021-22 schedule was announced (including hosting Hockey Day Minnesota ’22), a long-time assistant coach resigned and a new one was hired.
The reigning Spencer Penrose Award winner, Hastings has a career record of 236-90-24 at MSU. He has guided the Mavericks to six NCAA tournaments, one Frozen Four, six WCHA regular-season championships and two WCHA tournament championships.
He enters his 10th season as the Mavericks head coach this fall, and he sat down with The Rink Live last week to reflect on a historic 2020-21 season, a busy offseason, and to look ahead to a 2021-22 season that is loaded with must-see games.
THE RINK LIVE: How was your offseason and what are you most looking forward to about a more “normal” season in 2021-22?
MIKE HASTINGS: The offseason has been good and it’s been shorter, which is a good thing. I don’t like the direction we’re going in recently (with COVID-19 cases on the rise again) and I don’t even know if it’s a “normal” offseason, but it’s getting closer to that than what it was before.
TRL: Are there still COVID protocols that the team is following?
M.H.: Yes. No. 1, we’re pretty close to 100 percent vaccinated and once we’re there, that relaxes (protocols) a little. But we’re still preaching the need to be aware of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, at the rink and away from the rink, just because of the unknown. There are people out there getting COVID who are vaccinated. It doesn’t make us infallible. There are still some protocols — wearing masks when transitioning around the building, but we don’t have to wear them on the ice.
TRL: Speaking of being on the ice at the Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center, what are you most looking forward to about having fans back in the building this season?
M.H.: I went back and watched video of games from the last couple of years, to start preparing for this year, and you look back at those games from a couple years ago and go ‘THAT is what it’s like?!’ We’re incredibly excited for the athletes to play in front of friends and family, for our community members and supporters. Season ticket sales are going very well. There’s a legit excitement about the team playing at home and for fans to be there. … It all falls under ‘you don’t know how much you miss something until it’s gone.’ That was very evident in playing games last season without fans.
TRL: Your schedule is incredibly challenging to start the season, maybe the most challenging in your decade here. You start with defending national champion UMass on the road (Oct. 2-3), followed by a home series against national runner-up St. Cloud State (Oct. 8-9), then the Ice Breaker (Oct. 15-16) with Providence, Michigan and Minnesota Duluth. What do you like about that challenging start?
M.H.: That looked like a good idea four months ago. (laughs) The tape doesn’t lie. You go back to seeing what UMass did a year ago, and St. Cloud ended our season. Then Providence, who ended our season two years ago, and add in Michigan and Duluth. We’ve been aggressive year in, year out in our non-conference scheduling. … We’re excited from the standpoint of, we want to be prepared for the end of the year, the most important time of the year.
TRL: You’re transitioning to a new, old conference this season, with a bunch of familiar opponents and one new one, St. Thomas. What are you most looking forward to about being part of the new-look CCHA?
M.H.: There are a number of positives. One, our footprint has shrunk a bit in terms of travel. Two, with having seven teams (from the WCHA) and adding St. Thomas, that’s adding another quality program to what we have. It allows us to play a few more non-conference games, and I’ll put our strength of schedule up against anybody at the end of the year. If you want to be there at the most important time of the year, you have to be prepared. I’m also excited about our leadership in the CCHA, in (commissioner) Don Lucia. … I look at our schedule and I like to just focus on UMass right now, because as you turn the page, the book doesn’t get any lighter.
TRL: After a two-year wait, you’ll get to host Hockey Day Minnesota, against St. Thomas, on Jan. 22 at Blakeslee Stadium. What will that opportunity do for your program?
M.H.: First, I played junior hockey in Austin and Rochester, and what junior hockey was back in my day is not what it is today. To be able to show not only the rest of the state, but nationally, with the Minnesota Wild being such a big part of the day, showcasing what hockey is now in the southern part of the state. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to come down and witness it, they’ll be impressed. … The local organizing committee, along with the Wild and (Bally Sports North), where we’re at today, they’ve knocked it out of the park in preparation for what that day will be. The community support, the sponsorships, it’s setting up for a fantastic showcase of really what it is to be in the State of Hockey. From high school games to men’s and women’s D1 hockey, an (MSU) alumni game, it’s something that’s good for the entire state. We’re excited about it.
TRL: For the first time in your 10 years here, you’ll have a bit of a different look and feel on the bench this year. Assistant coach Darren Blue, who had been part of the MSU program as a player or coach for nearly three decades, resigned in July. What will you miss most about him?
M.H.: We couldn’t put it into just one article what he’s meant to the program. Twenty-one years. When I had the opportunity to become the head coach here, both him and (associate head coach) Todd (Knott), they decided to stick around when offered the opportunity. For me, being a first-time head coach, the experience of those two guys and their direction on the history here — understanding not only the history of the program but also of the university. Darren bleeds purple and gold. To help in my transition, I look back on it today and I didn’t know it then, but I look back and realize how thankful I am for him. … When you say “Bluey” around here everyone knows who it is. We nicknamed him “The Mayor” because he knows everyone. The quality of human being he is, and his family, I’m excited for them for a new chapter. And he’s still in the community, an arm’s length away.
TRL: You brought in former Ohio State player Paul Kirtland, who at just 33, has risen quickly through the coaching ranks, from the NAHL to Division III college to the USHL and to two Division I programs (Sacred Heart, Yale) over the past three years. What will he add to your staff?
M.H.: Through the interview process and turning over stones with people he’s worked with -- many of them on ‘What do you like about this guy?’ or ‘What are his qualities, positives and negatives?’ there was a lot of positive and not much negative, as a player or a coach. … He has an integrity, character and passion for the game, and has a lot of respect throughout college hockey, which impressed me. I’m excited about what he can do recruiting-wise and development-wise for our players.
TRL: There was a lot of player movement in the transfer portal this offseason. You had some players depart — forward Chris Van Os-Shaw (to AIC) and defenseman Colby Bukes (to Merrimack). MSU also gained some — defenseman Benton Maass (New Hampshire), and forwards Zach Krajnik (Anchorage), Josh Groll (Michigan) and David Silye (Clarkson). How will all that movement affect this season?
M.H.: I think that’s the million dollar question. We don’t know yet. Do you have players coming in? Do you have players leaving? You’re either on heads or tails, or maybe a little of both. A big piece of this is making sure you continue to have a culture that guys want to be involved in and believe in, so they want to come to it and they want to stay. … I do think this (player movement) is here to stay, so it goes back to being very aware of your relationships with your players, both ond and off the ice, in everything you do.
TRL: How did you work with last year’s seniors to determine if they’d take advantage of the extra season of eligibility offered by the NCAA?
M.H.: To me, it’s, at that time, after being here four years, you hope you’re asking them, what do they want? That was a focus for us: What do you want to do? And why do you want to do it? If you’re ready to move on to pro hockey, why? If you’d like to come back, why? If you’re coming back to do the same old thing, that’s maybe not a great idea.
TRL: Defenseman Jack McNeely and forward Reggie Lutz decided to return for fifth seasons. What made that the right decision for them and you?
M.H.: Jack and Reggie, in their actions and words, have come back with a new purpose, a new standing with this group, being example setters and leaders. It took time. This is the first time all the athletes and coaching staff have gone through this, figuring out what’s best for us. To do that, you start with figuring out what’s best for the players.
TRL: Dryden McKay is back for his senior season after being a Hobey Baker Hat Trick finalist, a first team All-American and a finalist for the Mike Richter Award. What’s next for him and how can he help your two freshmen goalies, Andrew Miller and Keenan Rancier?
M.H.: First of all, after last season it’s ‘OK, now what? What do you do next?’ We lost our last game and when you build a team, you build it from the posts out. It’s a responsibility on him that is no greater than the responsibility he puts on himself. We had that conversation the other day. How’s it going with the young guys? What are you doing to help them on their journey, their adjustment period? It’s being a ‘we’ guy, not a ‘me’ guy even though I know he wants to play every minute of every game.
TRL: Is it fair to say that the back end has to be a strength early in the season? WIth McNeely, Akito Hirose, Jake Livingstone, Tony Malinowski and Andy Carroll returning on defense, and you add Maass as a transfer and Bennett Zmolek and Steven Bellini as freshmen.
M.H.: It needs to be a strength. We’ve had a history of young guys coming in and playing right away. It’ll be no different this year. Talk about Bennett Zmolek and the guys we have coming back. I think Tony Malinowski has taken a tremendous step over the summer. Maass was a captain at UNH. We need that to be a strength.
TRL: And last but not least, up front, you have some guys who took big steps forward last year, including Nathan Smith. What do you expect from him this season?
M.H.: (Smith) had a fantastic summer in the weight room. That’s never been a weakness for him, but he’s shown up in terms of great shape. He’s coming off a very good finish to last season. His expectation of his own success is at an all-time high. He’s put in the work and I think he can be be even better.
TRL: What kind of roles do you expect the other returning forwards to play?
M.H.: Cade Borchardt, Julian Napravnik, we need them to elevate their game again. They’re coming back for a reason. I liked the way they finished the season. That’s been the conversation from when we finished last season. The challenge is taking another step. Julian, the thing he was able to address was consistency. That was missing prior to last year, but boy did he show that throughout last year. He was consistent, game in and game out. He was consistent Monday through Thursday as much as Friday and Saturday and that’s why he had the season he had (named WCHA Forward of the Year). It’s the same thing for Cade. We need that group, guys like Ryan Sandelin and Brendan Furry, guys who played great hockey at the end of the year, to not be satisfied.