MANKATO — Minnesota State had just lost to third-ranked Denver in a close game at home to drop to 1-5-0 in Western Collegiate Hockey Association play. The Mavericks had played the powerful Pioneers tough — probably outplayed them over the course of the weekend — but ended up getting swept in the series.
It was early November, and the Mavericks were showing hints of improvement from the beginning of the season and signs of betterment from two consecutive years of 11th-place hockey.
But hints? Signs? You don’t get points for those.
First-year coach Mike Hastings had a question for his players after that weekend against Denver: They have been close so many times before. Was being close good enough?
“He said, ‘Do you want to continue down the path we’ve been on the last three years, or do you want to be special?’” senior forward Eriah Hayes recalled. “Do we want to win games or be the team that didn’t amount to anything? If we want to be a special team, we have to bury that other team.”
Minnesota State will play in the NCAA tournament for just the second time in the program’s Division I era on Saturday in Toledo, Ohio. The Mavericks, with a Division I era-best 24 victories, are the third seed in the Midwest Regional and will take on second-seeded Miami.
But after that Denver weekend nearly five months ago, the Mavericks, while improved, had neither the record nor the look of a team that would be playing meaningful games in the last weekend in March.
“After the Denver series, (Hastings) said, ‘You don’t want to let this opportunity slip away, with the talent you have. It’s time for everybody to buy in,’” senior defenseman Tyler Elbrecht said. “He’s got his way of proving his point.”
The Mavericks went on to win their next seven games in a row and 11 of their next 12. At season’s end, they were in a tie for fourth place in the WCHA. They had hosted and won a first-round playoff series and made it to the Final Five for the first time since 2003.
No crystal ball
Minnesota State hired Hastings on April 16, a little more than 50 weeks ago. He was charged with the task of not only transforming a team but the changing the culture of a program.
“It doesn’t seem like a year,” Hastings said. “It seems like about eight weeks.”
What were the odds he’d do that in less than a calendar year?
“Nobody knows,” he said in his office this week. “I’m still waiting for that crystal ball to be delivered to the front of my house. I’d be a lot wealthier and a lot smarter. I just take every day as they come.”
Hastings might not have been able to foresee the future, but he was going to run things his way. He actually went to work before he was officially hired.
While meeting with players in Myers Field House on his interview day, he had them ready to play for him.
“We were excited to get to work right away; we were ready to buy in to whatever he had for us,” junior forward Johnny McInnis said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but it was going to be worth it.”
Hastings got the job the next day.
A different style
Hayes said he knew things were going to be run differently in late July when the players reported back to Mankato for offseason workouts. They had never been on campus so early in the summer before, and there they were on the university’s new outdoor track at 7 a.m.
Working with the school’s strength-and-conditioning coach Tom Inkrott at his side, Hastings put them through a grueling challenge. He instructed the players to run eight 400-meter dashes, each under 70 seconds with 2 minutes of rest between sprints. No one was able to complete the challenge, Hayes said.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is going to be different than years past. This is going to be tough.’” Hayes said.
“Tough,” “intense,” “energetic,” “disciplined.” They’re all words MSU’s players use to describe their coach. But keep listening, and you’ll hear “detailed,” “clear,” “wisdom,” “respect,” as well.
“He’s just full of wisdom,” said Elbrecht, who played junior hockey for Hastings with the Omaha Lancers in 2007-08. “Every day he gives us a talk before practice, and you feel like you’re going to out and play for the Stanley Cup.”
From the moment he arrived in Mankato, Hastings has stuck with the theme of “family” and getting the team to go through the year — the preseason, the season itself and, they all hoped, the postseason — together as a unit.
Hayes and Elbrecht, the team’s co-captains, led the way. Rarely an interview goes by in which they don’t mention their Mavericks family.
“This is a we thing, not a me thing,” Hastings said. “We ask everybody to buy into that. … Look, everyday with your family is not a picnic, right? There are peaks and valleys. The peaks are enjoyable, and the valleys make you stronger, not weaker.”
Those words — many mantras and mottos — roll off Hastings’ tongue on a regular basis and have kept the players listening and learning.
Asked to come up with some Hastings-isms, players agreed there were too many to remember the best.
“Get your bump,” McInnis said, referring to checking an opponent when he gets rid of the puck. “When we’re not playing well, we’re not bumping anybody.
“It makes you remember. If I’m a coach one day, I’ll be saying that.”
Said Hayes: “Every time he comes in the locker room, everybody’s all ears,” Hayes said. “We can’t wait to hear coach’s speeches. He gives you goosebumps; you’re ready to get going.”
But it’s not just talk.
As the season has progressed, those Mavericks of old appear have been buried. The new-look Mavericks under Hastings, have seen their penalty minutes melt away, their team defense improve and their power play become one of the best in the country.
The Mavericks’ place in the WCHA standings wasn’t the only reason Hastings was named the league’s Coach of the Year.
“It’s taken us to places we haven’t been to in 10 years,” McInnis said.
This weekend, the Mavericks will try to go further than they ever have before as a Division I program. Two wins would mean a trip to the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh in two weeks.
“Obviously, he’s a really special coach,” Hayes said. “From Day 1, it was all about family and buying in for your family, doing things the right way and doing things the hard way.
“If you live life the right way, good things are going to happen.”