On Friday afternoon, the Minnesota State bus pulled up to the back side of Ewigleben Arena in Big Rapids, Michigan. The last man out was Mavs head coach Mike Hastings, last seen on Jan. 5 collecting a World Junior Championship silver medal in Vancouver, 2,200 miles away.
The World Championship might as well have been on another planet. Hastings led Team USA in an IIHF gold-medal game in front of 18,000 fans and a global television audience. Six days later, he pulled up to the WCHA’s smallest rink to play a Ferris State team that was 11 games under .500.
But with his Mavericks in a three-team dogfight for first place, Hastings’ game face was firmly in place.
“It’s good. The league’s a battle. It’s nice to get back and be with our guys,” he said. He quickly dismissed the idea of burnout and strode into a hockey rink, something he’s been doing since he was mini-mite in northern Minnesota.
With the Mavs scoring star Parker Tuomie injured up in the press box, the Mavs couldn’t expand their early 2-0 lead, and found themselves in a supreme battle with Ferris State, a game the Bulldogs extended into overtime. Hastings was at his energetic best as the game approached its climax: shuffling his lines, calling a crucial time-out and insisting on official explanations over key calls and critical faceoffs.
When Mavs defenseman Ian Scheid’s 50-foot shot pinballed into the back of the Ferris net, Minnesota State celebrated its nation-leading 17th win of the season, and one more point of breathing room atop the WCHA standings. Instead of entertaining NHL Network and TSN cameras in the mixed zone, Hastings’ press conference was a party of two, but he spelled out his concerns just the same.
He justified his line shuffling because some of his players were “passengers.” Without Tuomie, the man he called his offensive engine, he said he needed his troops to do a better job “getting people to the net and staying there.” He mentioned that Ferris “tipped the ice,” on his club in the third period, and that the Mavs were “fortunate to win.” He complimented a pair of forwards before wrapping, heading out into the Michigan chill.
Hastings had received a text from Josh Norris, one of his leading scorers from Team USA. Norris happened to be in Big Rapids to watch his older brother Coale, skating wing that night for Ferris. Although the Norris family had just spent two hours rooting against Josh’s World Junior coach, they made a point of connecting outside the arena.
“I was able to meet [Josh’s] mom, his brother and some friends,” said the coach known as Hasty. “That’s a relationship that I hope continues forever. That group was special.”
The next morning, Hasty was back in his Mavericks warm-up suit running the morning skate, receiving and dishing passes from center ice during two-man rush drills. It was symbolic that the drills ran through him at center ice. He is the rudder on a team that dropped several places in the rankings during his absence. He wasted no time grabbing the reins of a Mavs squad that he built himself, unlike Team USA.
“You’ve got your own players and your own program,” said Hastings, less than a week removed from the grandeur of the IIHF U20 World Championship. “Right now, you jump right back into the WCHA play.”
That night, the Mavericks followed the orders of their boss more closely, swarming the Ferris net for 44 shots and a 2-0 lead for the second straight night, with Tuomie passionately rooting on his mates from up above. But the Bulldogs’ junior goalie Justin Kapelmaster was brilliant, preventing the Mavs from pulling away, keeping Ferris close until they clawed within a goal in the closing minutes.
Once again, the Bulldogs began tilting the ice, and Hastings loudly advocated for each call and faceoff. He got progressively outraged at what he thought were unpenalized liberties the Bulldogs were taking at the Minnesota State goal mouth, his face getting redder, his language saltier. With half a minute remaining, all the pent-up frustration of an excruciating gold-medal game boiled over, and Hastings exploded verbally at the officials, continuing his tirade after the game’s final buzzer. The horn signaled another hard-earned win, and a six-point weekend for the Mavericks. But the closing moments appeared to be an ordeal for Hastings, who clearly needed his five-minute cool down period.
“There were a lot of things that had been let go,” said Hastings in the post-game, now calm and collected. “You know what, I think the emotion got the best of me, probably should have left it alone.”
The man who had spent 30 of the previous 33 nights on the road, serving both his country and his university, was finally ready to head home to Mankato for an extended stay and sleep in his own bed. His Mavericks had maintained their hold on first place in the WCHA, their 18 wins tops in the nation. It was time to get back to the Verizon Center and prepare for resurgent Lake Superior State. His time to process what he had accomplished with Team USA in Vancouver would have to wait until summer.
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press, 2018). He can be reached @TeeRaps.