By Shane Frederick
Free Press Staff Writer
It was early December, 1987, when Mike Hastings’ life was put on its current course.
Call it fate, call it luck — bad luck, it must have seemed at the time — but that weekend trip to the east coast for a pair of college hockey games sent Hastings down a path that, 25 years later, would lead him to Minnesota State University.
“It changed it, period,” said Hastings, who will make his MSU’s men’s hockey coaching debut during an exhibition game today at the Verizon Wireless Center.
A sophomore defenseman for St. Cloud State at the time, Hastings, broke two vertebrae in his lower back on a cross-ice hit in a game against Providence. The injury ultimately ended his hockey playing career but started a new one in coaching.
Hastings credits the Huskies’ head coach at the time, Craig Dahl, for keeping him involved with the team as a student assistant.
“I owe a lot to him because of the way he handled the situation,” Hastings said. “Craig was always a big-picture guy. He won a lot of games, but he was really good to the players that played for him, too. And he gave me an opportunity to stick around.”
Dahl, who coached St. Cloud State until 2005 and now works in finance in Rochester, NY., recalled that it was important to give Hastings that opportunity.
“Michael has a personality that people find easy to like,” Dahl said. “He was popular with his teammates, a good team player, a hard worker. He would do what he was asked to do, and he didn’t cause problems. When a guy like that gets hurt, it’s devastating.”
It didn’t take long for Hastings’ experience to turn into a paid coaching gig. A secondary education major, he had just wrapped up a semester of student teaching when Mike Guentzel called and offered him an assistant job with the Omaha Lancers, a junior team in the United States Hockey League.
Hastings did that for a season and then returned to St. Cloud State to work as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for Dahl.
A year after that, Guentzel moved on to the University of Minnesota, and Omaha called again, this time offering Hastings the head coaching job there.
“I owe a lot to Guentzel, too,” Hastings said of the longtime Gophers assistant. “ One thing Mike said when I ended up taking the job: ‘There’s only one thing you’ve got to promise me. You’ve got to promise me that this place is going to be better when you leave it than when you got it.’ That was something that always stuck with me.”
Hastings more than made it better. Over the course of 14 seasons, he became the USHL’s all-time winningest coach with 529 victories. He also won three league championships and a pair of national titles.
Hastings was voted the USHL’s coach of the year three times and its general manager of the year five times. He even got elected into the Omaha’s hockey hall of fame. But he felt like he needed to do more to get to the next level, a Division I college head coach.
“I wanted to get back into the college game,” he said. “The goal of the USHL is as a college developmental league.”
Once again, Hastings ended up taking a spot vacated by Guentzel, this time at Minnesota where he worked as an assistant for Don Lucia.
After a season with the Gophers, Nebraska Omaha coach Dean Blais called Hastings and offered him a spot on his bench as associate head coach, which he did the last three seasons.
In April, Minnesota State gave him the job he had been preparing for since breaking his back a quarter century ago.
Looking back down the road that led him to Mankato, the 46-year-old Hastings said his coaching career has been molded and shaped by a who’s who of hockey coaches.
“It’s kind of like you take what you’ve seen and you pull the positives, and you combine that with what some of your own philosophical foundation-based things are and try to make it better,” he said.
Before Dahl, there were Olympic hockey legend Herb Brooks and Frank Serratore.
Brooks, who won three national titles at Minnesota, coached St. Cloud State during Hastings’ freshman year, as the program made the transition from Division II to Division I. Serratore, who now coaches at Air Force, coached Hastings when he played junior hockey in Austin and Rochester.
More recently, there were Lucia and Blais, each of whom has won two national championships
Not a bad collection of mentors.
“It’s also a bus I wouldn’t mind being on because they’re a unique group,” Hastings said. “I think they’re all special in their own way. I think they all bring different things to the table.
“They did things their own way, and they were very confident in how they did them. I’ve taken something from every one of them.”
Dahl said a lot of the credit has to go to Hastings himself. That back injury may have started him down the coaching path, but Hastings still had to take it and pave it.
“The thing he’s got is aptitude for coaching,” Dahl said. “He’s got the work ethic. He’s got the passion. He’s got the personality you have to have to be able to recruit. ... I don’t take credit.
“I gave him an opportunity. He still had to have the want-to.”