MANKATO — Mike Hastings is the head coach of one of the best Division I college hockey programs in the country.
But when asked about Riese Zmolek, Hastings can’t help but stop and smile, and gush about his captain, a player whom Hastings called his team’s “security blanket” earlier this season.
“We don’t have enough time,” Hastings said, when asked what he likes about Zmolek’s game. “I’m a big Riese Zmolek fan. So are his teammates.”
From Zmolek’s perspective, the feeling is mutual. That became apparent — if it wasn’t already — last Thursday night at the Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center, when the Zmolek-led Minnesota State University, Mankato, hockey team beat rival Bemidji State — including Riese’s younger brother, Will Zmolek — 4-3 in overtime. The win gave the Mavericks their fourth consecutive WCHA regular season championship and locked up home-ice advantage for Minnesota State throughout the upcoming WCHA playoffs, which begin March 12.
When Zmolek was called up to go collect the MacNaughton Cup, given annually to the WCHA regular season winner, he didn’t go alone. He waved and waited for his teammates to grab the trophy with him, symbolizing the unity that has helped the Mavericks to a 16-3-1 record so far this season.
“At this point of the year, there are leaders all over the locker room,” Zmolek, a Rochester Century graduate, said last week. “It makes it really easy out there. I don’t have to say much; there’s not really much for me to do. We have a lot of guys taking the reins and doing what they’re supposed to do. There’s not much I have to do out there (as a leader).”
His teammates and coaches would beg to differ.
Zmolek and fellow senior defenseman Jack McNeely, a Lakeville North graduate, have been the backbones of the No. 3-ranked Mavericks.
Zmolek has played in more games (127) than any current Maverick except for senior wing Reggie Lutz (132). The 6-foot-1, 205-pound defenseman — and eldest son of former Rochester John Marshall and University of Minnesota star, and eight-year NHL defenseman Doug Zmolek — has 10 points (one goal, nine assists) this season, and 37 for his college career.
“I’ll go back to … I don’t think the apple falls too far from the tree,” Hastings said when talking of Zmolek’s family. “Doug and his wife (Jennifer) and that family have done a phenomenal job. I keep telling Douggie they should write a book because their young men are very accomplished human beings, let alone hockey players.
“What Riese has done for us is, he’s helped establish a culture of, ‘you don’t have to say a lot if you do a lot.’ He’s done a lot for us from Day 1 that he got here.”
That ‘Day 1’ for Zmolek in Mankato was the fall of 2017, nearly four years ago.
He was part of a team that season that helped the Mavericks capture their third MacNaughton Cup in four seasons, bringing it back to Mankato after Bemidji State had won it in 2016-17. The Cup hasn’t left Mankato since, as MSU became the first program ever to win it four seasons in a row.
“It’s absolutely flown by,” Zmolek said of his four seasons of college hockey, adding in a text message last week that he is uncertain what next season holds for him. He has the option of another year of college eligibility, or a professional contract of some kind could await the undrafted 24-year-old. “When it’s all said and done, winning it four (years) in a row will be a very cool accomplishment, and one of the goals we set this year was trying to get that. (Now) we can start focusing on the next step of our journey.”
The next steps are big ones for Minnesota State, which is also the reigning WCHA postseason champion. The Mavericks won that title in 2019 and were a favorite to win it a year ago before the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the final two weeks of the WCHA playoffs and all of the NCAA national tournament.
MSU closes its regular season Friday and Saturday at home against Michigan Tech. It will then begin chasing its fourth league postseason title under Hastings, which would be the second in Zmolek’s time in Mankato. MSU will be at home for a best-of-3 first-round playoff series March 12-14; if it wins that series, it will host the league’s single-elimination final four on March 19 and 20.
MSU has likely already locked up a berth in the NCAA tournament, which begins March 26. But the Mavericks have never won a Division I national tournament game. Zmolek would like to be the leader on the team that finally breaks through.
“He plays through injuries, he’s a helping hand when someone is struggling, without a coach having to egg him into it,” Hastings said of Zmolek. “He’s just … he’s a complete player and we’re fortunate to have him. He’s a big piece of why we’re able to get to where we are at this point.
“He’s about as complete a player as we have, both on and off the ice."