Exciting, emotional time for new Minnesota State coach Hastings

In the weeks since signing on as just the third head coach in Minnesota State’s history, Mike Hastings has hit the ground running … and squeezed in plenty of flying and driving as well.

After three seasons alongside Dean Blais as associate head coach at Nebraska-Omaha, Hastings officially took the reins of the Mavericks on April 16, replacing longtime Minnesota State player and coach Troy Jutting. And he hasn’t looked back, primarily to avoid collisions as his life has been hurtling forward at warp speed ever since.

Hastings’ travels included a recruiting trip to Slovakia for the Under-18 World Championship, the American Hockey Coaches Association meetings in Florida and a stop in the Dominican Republic for a friend’s wedding.

After two days in Omaha packing boxes in preparation for his family’s impending return to Minnesota, Hastings was back on the road for the 300-mile commute to Mankato, a route with which he will become quite familiar in the weeks to come until his wife, Jean Ann, and his two children, daughter Hannah and son Hudson, are settled in Mankato.

“It’s been exciting and emotional,” said Hastings, who also assisted Don Lucia at Minnesota for one season before joining Blais’ staff. “I’m excited about the opportunity to be a head coach again.”

Hastings is no stranger to playing a leading role. He guided the USHL’s Omaha/River City franchise from 1994 to 2008, compiling a 529-210-56 overall record and leading the Lancers to six league finals and three titles (1998, 2001, 2008).

“I think the USHL is a great breeding ground for [head coaching] experience,” said Hastings, who offered up the likes of North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol, Colorado College coach Scott Owens, Minnesota assistant coach Mike Guentzel and former Western Michigan coach Jeff Blashill as examples. “I learned a lot more from my mistakes [in the USHL] than I ever did from anything that I did right.

“One of the good things about the USHL is you’ve got to wear a lot of different hats, and I think any time you can be multi-dimensional in any business it makes you more valuable.”

Minnesota State officials certainly recognized Hastings’ valuable traits when they immediately placed him on their short list of coaching candidates upon reassigning Jutting to other duties within the university on April 1. Roughly two weeks later, they had their man.

“There is a tremendous opportunity at hand for Maverick hockey, and that was evident by the level of interest that others demonstrated in this position,” Minnesota State athletic director Kevin Buisman said in a news release at the time. “Coach Hastings emerged from a highly competitive process as the individual we believed was most qualified to take us in the direction we want to go with in terms of fan interest, attendance, recruiting and overall competitiveness.

“We need to embrace this change in a positive way, seize the moment and begin to chart a course where excellence in our hockey program becomes the standard.”

Hastings said that was all he really needed to hear to cement his interest in the job.

“I’ve enjoyed the people that I’ve met [at Minnesota State] because I believe their goals are the same goals that I have for the program,” Hastings said. “I think that they’re very much invested in trying to make this program be as successful as it can be, and you want to be around like-minded people.

“I’ve seen that commitment from the president on down and I’m excited to be a part of that.”

“He’s determined, works hard, and he’s got a personality that people like. I don’t think there’s any question that Mike is going to be successful.”

— Craig Dahl

This isn’t to say the decision to leave Omaha was an easy one for Hastings because that would be far from the case. Having spent 18 of the past 20 years coaching in Omaha on some level, the bond between Hastings and the Omaha community is strong.

“I think Omaha is a very special place because there’s a lot of really, really good people there,” said Hastings, who was inducted into the Omaha Hockey Hall of Fame in February 2009. “I wouldn’t have left Omaha and the people there, and the program there, for something that I didn’t think was real special.”

Considering his tight relationship with Blais and believing UNO was headed in the right direction as a team, he knew he was leaving a lot behind. So when Blais broke the news to him regarding Minnesota State’s inquiry into his availability and interest, Hastings’ initial thoughts centered on his current boss.

“I said, ‘Dean, I’d like to talk to you about that because I respect you and I really am thankful for where I’m at but, yeah, if they’re interested in me I’d definitely be interested in looking at that,'” Hastings said.

A Eugene, Ore., native, Hastings was 7 when he and his parents, Lloyd and Marlene, and sister, Sandy, left the Pacific Northwest as his father pursued his career in the concrete business. The family settled in Crookston, Minn., a northwestern Minnesota college town less than 30 miles from Grand Forks, N.D., split by the serpentine meanderings of the Red Lake River.

Firmly embedded in hockey country, Hastings did not shy away from the unfamiliar sport but found assimilation with this local custom to have its unique challenges.

“I could roller skate but there were four wheels, not one half-inch blade,” Hastings said. “So I immediately became the goaltender and found out after about two or three bouts with that I didn’t enjoy the heck out of it.

“I would say I was probably the last guy to make the squirt team and I probably made it because of numbers; they needed another player more than they needed my talent.”

Although hockey was foreign to his parents, Hastings is grateful for the support they exhibited and for the ways in which they “facilitated” his development as a player.

“Our car was the bus for the block. We played boot hockey out in front of my place. The place to kind of hang out was over at our house,” Hastings said. “Whether it was getting me down to the outdoor rink or helping me to walk to the rink or picking me up for dinner or whatever it was, they were always supportive.

“They never told me I couldn’t do something, just that if I started it I had to finish it and I really owe everything that way to my parents.”

Hastings spoke reverently about those who coached him growing up and fondly remembered the small, tight-knit community in which he grew up, with its Midwestern values emphasizing hard work and honesty.

“The same guys that were on your baseball team were the same guys that were on your hockey team were the same guys you were playing football with,” said Hastings, who lamented not getting back home as much as he’d like.

In the fall of 1986, the last kid to make the Crookston squirt team landed at St. Cloud State playing for a “rookie” coach named Herb Brooks who was in the process of transitioning the Huskies from a Division III program to Division I. A year later, Brooks, the mastermind behind 1980’s “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic team, turned the team over to assistant Craig Dahl as SCSU entered the world of big-time college hockey.

“He was just a good, smart, very steady defenseman,” Dahl said of Hastings. “Not being big, he was more of a playmaker and he worked his fanny off.”

But in a December 1987 game at Princeton, just 15 games into his D-I career, Hastings injured his back when a hip check he delivered left a pair of Tigers players on top of him. Two nights later, his attempt to play through it was unsuccessful and when the diagnosis later revealed two cracked vertebrae his playing days were over.

As devastating as it was to see the door to his playing career closing behind him, a new door was opening ahead of him courtesy of the man whom Hastings credits for launching him into coaching.

“Craig Dahl could have just said, ‘Hey, you know, Mike, these things happen. Good luck at what you want to do going forward,'” Hastings said. “But he gave me an opportunity to keep my scholarship money and start to work on the coaching side of things.”

“[Hastings] was a natural-born leader,” said Dahl, who stepped down as St. Cloud State’s coach in 2005 to enter private business and currently resides in Rochester, N.Y. “The guys liked him and looked up to him and listened to him. After he got hurt, he came and said, ‘I really want to stay involved and go into the coaching profession.’

“When you see a passion in someone, which is the No. 1 ingredient in any profession, you certainly want to help them whether they’re a player or a coach.”

More than two decades later that passion has never waned, but the manner in which Hastings evaluates his opportunities has.

“I went from a single guy that was living in Omaha to being a married guy who was living in Omaha to being a father, so it just doesn’t become a business decision, it’s a family decision,” Hastings said. “I’m excited about my children growing up in the city of Mankato and the Mankato area; I think it’s a great place to raise a family.”

Minnesota State finished 11th in the 12-team WCHA in the 2011-12 season, but Hastings is well aware of how decimated the Mavericks were by injuries, especially early in the year. With seven of the team’s top 10 scorers (including the top four) and a veteran goalie all returning, he also understands the cupboard is not bare.

“I think that there’s a lot of good pieces here,” said Hastings, who added that his conversations with current and future players have bred mutual excitement. “Now it’s just trying to get to work and bring those pieces together and be as prepared as we can be when we get together in September.”

Hastings said he will spend the summer learning as much as possible about his players in terms of character, work ethic and what each brings to the table. First and foremost, however, he wants to establish the foundation of a family among the players and will stress the importance of pride within team.

“I think we’ve got to have pride in what we do every day,” Hastings said. “That’s on the rink, off the rink, in the classroom, out in the public eye. Wherever we’re at we’ve got to have pride in what we’re doing.”

Although Hastings admits the Mavericks’ style of play will be a work in progress as he spends the early portion of the season familiarizing himself with his personnel, he is adamant that his team has to exhibit one particular trait.

“I want to be a hard team to play against,” Hastings said. “You want to be somebody that people don’t look on the schedule and say, ‘You know what, if we play hard against them, we’re going to be OK.'”

When asked his thoughts on what has to happen for the Mavericks to make the jump into the middle of the WCHA standings, where the line between playoff home ice and hitting the road is often quite fine, Hastings had no interest in offering prognostications.

“Instead of looking at where we’re going to finish, we’re really focused on where we’re starting right now because that’s what we get to control,” he said. “I know I will worry enough about Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, [Minnesota-]Duluth once the puck drops.”

Worry as he may, it is doubtful anyone who has ever shared a bench with Hastings has any concerns about his ability to thrive in Mankato, least of all his first mentor in the profession.

“He’s determined, works hard, and he’s got a personality that people like,” Dahl said. “I don’t think there’s any question that Mike is going to be successful.”