Myers: New Mavericks coach a familiar face for Don Lucia, Gophers
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MINNEAPOLIS -- If you like college hockey and contradictions, there's something akin to a perfect weekend coming your way.
The Gophers, still ranked second in the nation, face a Minnesota State, Mankato team that is led by experienced underclassmen. Behind the bench, the Mavericks have a rookie coach who has been around for years. The Gophers are prepping to take advantage of home ice, and anticipating a hostile crowd on the road.
None of it makes any sense, save for the fact that in this rivalry, it's perfectly sensible.
And despite the fact that the Mavs were nationally ranked until last weekend, when they were beaten twice, badly, at St. Cloud State, the Gophers are anticipating a handful on Friday at Mariucci Arena and on Saturday at the Verizon Wireless Center in Mankato.
"They're good," said Gophers defenseman Nate Schmidt. "They've got a lot of older experienced junior guys. ... I've played with and against a lot of them and they're a good team. They've got some skill."
A year ago, then-Mavs coach Troy Jutting brought in a dynamic group of freshmen with years of junior hockey experience. While rookies Jean-Paul Lafontaine and Matt Leitner were the team's top two scorers, that youth didn't translate into a wealth of wins, and at the conclusion of a 12-games-under-.500 season, Jutting was dismissed after a dozen seasons at MSU.
In his place, the school brought in a name familiar in college hockey circles to try his hand as a head coach at this level for the first time.
Mike Hastings won't get lost when he gets to Mariucci Arena on Friday. He's been there plenty as an assistant coach for other schools and even worked there for a year, serving as one of Don Lucia's assistants in the 2008-09 season.
He came to the college game after supplying college talent for more than a decade. In 14 seasons as head coach of the United States Hockey League's Omaha Lancers, Hastings never had a team finish with a losing record, won three national titles and remains the all-time winningest coach in USHL history.
It's interesting Hastings and Jutting essentially traded jobs, with Jutting going to Nebraska-Omaha, filling the assistant coach vacancy that was left when Hastings came to MSU.
The challenge for Hastings is considerable in Mankato, where the Mavericks are one of the biggest sports attractions in southern Minnesota but rarely sell out their 5,000-seat downtown rink. The Mavs play less than an hour from the prep school hockey hotbed at Shattuck-St. Mary's in Faribault, but too often have seen talent from there head north (to Minnesota) and northwest (to North Dakota) rather than making the short drive down Highway 60 to Mankato.
Next season, while rivals like the Gophers are moving on to the Big Ten and in-state competitors St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth go to the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference, the Mavs will be one of those schools "left behind" in the new incarnation of the WCHA.
All of that aside, Hastings knows that goals lead to wins, and wins lead to all of the rest of it (attendance, recruits, trips to the NCAA tourney, etc.) in short order. He simplifies the game, figuring out that by holding onto the puck, his team has a better chance of scoring (even if the goals sometimes aren't nice to look at) and hence, a better chance of winning.
"Good coaches adjust to their abilities. But if you can hang a crooked number up there on the scoreboard on a consistent basis, it's easier to stretch the ice," Hastings said in a preseason interview with InsideCollegeHockey.com. "There are a lot of ways the puck can get over the goal line and sometimes that's pretty, sometimes it's not. The puck is a hard thing to get a hold of, so hopefully when we do, we can hold onto it a little bit."
To that end, Hastings' first recruiting class looks anything but youthful, with several "old rookies" coming to Mankato over the summer. At least four MSU freshmen are already of legal drinking age, which means despite being new to the college game, there's a wealth of high-level junior hockey experience on their resumes.
The same, of course, can be said for their coach, who played in the USHL and became a coaching legend there.
Back when Hastings was playing junior hockey for the Rochester Mustangs, Lucia even tried to lure him to Alaska Fairbanks for college. He declined and skated for St. Cloud State until suffering a career-ending injury.
"He was a wimp and didn't want to go to Alaska. He wanted to stay close to home," Lucia joked. "He's got a real passion for coaching and it's been a seamless transition for him after being a head coach for all those years in the USHL."
The junior ranks are widely known for their long bus trips. By contrast, it will be relatively short bus trips for the home-and-home series this weekend. Tickets at Mariucci are notoriously hard to come by, but Lucia noted that Gophers fans in the southwest suburbs long ago figured out that it's a relatively easy drive to Mankato and there are often seats available, meaning a good contingent in maroon and gold in the audience when the Gophers travel there.
MSU officials admitted that dwindling attendance numbers were a factor that led to Jutting's dismissal, talking about declines in season tickets, day-of-game ticket sales and memberships in the school's hockey booster club when the announced the coaching change.
For now, they'll welcome the Gophers fans who show up and help fill the building on Saturday. But if Hastings does what he was hired to do, those tickets won't be available in a few years, when the Gophers return as a nonconference foe.