By Shane Frederick
---- — WORCESTER, MASS. — Johnny McInnis was the talk of the NCAA men’s hockey Northeast Regional practice day Friday at the DCU Center.
The Minnesota State senior captain had the Boston-area media wondering just how on earth McInnis left Massachusetts after his prep career concluded and ended up in the Midwest.
The truth, McInnis said, was that staying close to home as so many others from Boston do, “wasn’t in the cards.”
“I was just looking for an opportunity to play college hockey after I played juniors (in Alberta, Canada), and I got that at Mankato,” he said.
McInnis, a Boston native, wasn’t recruited by at Hockey East team, as he had hoped when he was playing for Lawrence Academy, a prep school located less than 40 miles from where he and the Mavericks will be playing today. Minnesota State’s opponent, UMass Lowell, is located just about 15 miles from the school.
“Obviously, I wanted (a chance) from a school out here, so there is a little bit of that chip on my shoulder,” McInnis said. “But there are no hostilities. It worked out the way it worked out, and I couldn’t be happier.”
McInnis, who leads the Mavericks in goal scoring with 21 goals, has a chance to lead MSU to its first Division I tournament win right in his back yard. About 40 friends and family members from the area are expected to be at the game.
"I might have been forgotten out here, but I haven’t forgotten that I’m from here," he said. "This is my home and I’m happy to be here, that’s for sure."
No longer new
A year ago at the Midwest Regional in Toledo, Ohio, Minnesota State players' heads were spinning a bit. They weren't used to the circus that goes along with making an NCAA tournament.
"It was kind of overwhelming," junior Brett Stern said. "This year, we know what we're getting into."
The Mavericks lost 4-0 to Miami in the first game of last year's tournament, their first NCAA appearance in a decade.
Returning players, such as Stern, and coach Mike Hastings said the team is better prepared this time around because they knew what to expect when they arrived here Thursday evening.
"That doesn’t guarantee us any different result than what happened last year," Hastings said. "We’re going to have to go out and play."
For the seniors on the UMass-Lowell team, the program’s turnaround actually began in Mankato.
After a five-win season in 2010-11, the River Hawks got a new coach, Norm Bazin, and are now in their third consecutive NCAA tournament.
Bazin’s first two games were at Minnesota State, and Lowell stunned the Mavericks, sweeping the series 4-2 and 4-1.
“We didn’t know what to expect going into that weekend,” senior Joseph Pendenza said. “It was a new staff, a new system. We were just trying to go out there and work as hard as we could. We weren’t necessarily trying to get two wins. We were just trying to get back the Lowell identity and the Lowell work ethic.”
Hayes’ new home
The DCU Center is home to the Worcester Sharks, an American Hockey League team and affiliate of the NHL’s San Jose Sharks.
Last season’s MSU captain Eriah Hayes plays for Worcester, which is on the road.
“Eriah’s been a guy that since I walked in the door that I looked up to,” McInnis said. “He’s been a guy I relied on to look up to and kind of chase and watch his work ethic over the years.”
Hayes has eight goals and 13 points in 48 games for Worcester. He also spent 15 games in the NHL.
“It’s been fun to watch him get to the next level because he put a lot of work into where he’s at now,” McInnis said. “And he’s getting results, so it’s been fun to watch.”