The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Sports

December 1, 2011

Mavericks' Hayes goes from small town to big time

La Crescent native has six-game scoring streak

MANKATO — J.P. Piché played for the Minnesota State men’s hockey team in the late 1980s and early ’90s and was part of the team that went to the national championship game in 1991. Of course, he roots for his alma mater.
But recent Mavericks teams, including this year’s, have been extra special to Piché and a lot of other people living in La Crescent, the hometown of MSU junior Eriah Hayes.
“I’m actually full of pride, with what Eriah’s done for this community hockey-wise,” said Piché, a longtime high school and youth coach in La Crescent. “His college jersey is up in the rink. It’s kind of nice. It’s a nice tribute to him.”
La Crescent is a town of about 5,000 residents located in the southeast corner of Minnesota — the outskirts of the so-called State of Hockey.
But the 6-foot-4, 210-pound right wing looks right at home in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. He ranks third on the MSU roster with four goals and five assists and takes a six-game point-scoring streak into this weekend’s series at fifth-ranked Minnesota. In his first 88 college games he has 23 goals and 22 assists.
“When I look back it’s kind of crazy to me, that I came from there,” Hayes said.
Hayes recalled his first game at the Gophers’ Mariucci Arena two years ago and being a bit awestruck by the experience. While the 10,000-seat stadium can be an intimidating place, several of his teammates had played high school games or attended camps there before their college careers began.
“Being from where I am, you don’t get to play at rinks like that,” Hayes said. “It’s pretty special, pretty cool.”
Piché was La Crescent’s high school coach during Hayes’ freshman season there (he’s back coaching the Lancers again this year) and said Hayes was so good for that area that he was on the ice for about 70 percent of every game he played that season and the rest of his prep career.
But, Piché added, Hayes didn’t take his natural athletic talent for granted. After scoring 135 goals and assisting on 99 others in 105 high school games, Hayes went on to play two years of junior hockey before getting to MSU.
“Everybody knows he did it the hard way,” Piché  said. “He’s worked for everything he’s achieved. He’s gone up through the ranks the way you should.”
That continues today. Hayes started the season with just one assist through the first four games of the year. After missing two games with injury and being held scoreless for two more, he’s compiled eight points in his last six games, all the while charging his big, power-forward body all over the rink like the bull that adorns his jersey.
“I guess just putting a little urgency in my game,” Hayes said. “Coach Knotter (assistant coach Todd Knott) talked to me about doing three things: just getting to the net, being a physical presence out there and winning my 50-50 battles. I think by focusing on those three things I’ve simplified my game a lot — doing less thinking, more just reacting. It’s just working out.”
Head coach Troy Jutting said the focus of his postseason meeting with Hayes last spring was consistency.
Jutting said, “He’s still got some things he can do better, some things he needs to continue to work on. But he’s an incredible athlete. He’s getting a lot better.”
Hayes went undrafted by the National Hockey League out of La Crescent, his size and skill could make him a coveted free agent once his college career ends.
“Definitely it’s my ultimate goal,” Hayes said. “But I kind of put that in the back right now and focus on now and what I need to do on a nightly basis. If I focus on that now, my ultimate goal will come later.”
And the folks in La Crescent will have another team to cheer for.

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