MSU Mankato’s hockey success comes from insidious chat, the pizza buffet

BOSTON – The city of Sheldon, Iowa, and the great metropolis of Boston are 1,500 miles and worlds apart, but on Saturday night, a meeting at a Pizza Ranch that took place in the small town 10 years ago could play a big role in who who is crowned as the 2022 NCAA men’s hockey champion.

Kevin Buisman, the athletic director of Minnesota State Mankato, was looking for a hockey coach in 2012. After two consecutive 11th-placed in WCHA, the Mavericks differed from Troy Jutting, and Buisman had Nebraska Omaha assistant Mike Hastings on his radar.

Instead of risking Hastings being seen by curious eyes in Mankato during the interview process, Buisman arranged to meet Hastings somewhere midway between Mankato and Omaha. So there they were, the coach delivering his vision for the Mavericks to AD between slices of Stampede and Roundup.

“I thought [the meeting] might be an hour, an hour and a half, ” Buisman said Friday. “We saw several shifts. We talked for four hours about his vision and what it could become.”

What the program has become will be shown Saturday night at TD Garden when Minnesota State (38-5) meets Denver (30-9-1) for the national championship. A win would allow the Mavericks to join the select Minnesota club of NCAA title lists, which include Gophers (five titles) and Minnesota Duluth (three), and put a feather in the cap for Southern Minnesota hockey.

“It has been built over time and we just keep climbing the mountain,” Buisman said. “There is one more step to take.”

The Mavericks took a big step Thursday, beating Gophers 5-1 to the delight of the purple-clad fans who rejoiced over the “Ole-Ole-Ole” song played after Minnesota State scored a goal. Led by a tenacious advance check and Dryden McKay’s outstanding goalkeeping, the Mavericks overcame a 1-0 deficit to end Minnesota’s season for the second year in a row.

“It’s a kind of cherry on top to beat them,” said McKay, who won the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s best player on Friday. “It did not matter who we played against tonight. We played the way we wanted to play. We are sure every time we do. No matter who is on the other side, we come out on top.”

McKay takes care of that to a great extent. The senior from Downers Grove, Ill., Is 38-4 this season – an NCAA record in a single season for wins – with 1.27 goals against the average and 0.934 save percentage. He also has 10 shutouts, driving his NCAA career record to 34.

Builds stone for brick

Under Hastings, the Mavericks had rapid success while methodically building the foundation of the program and reaching the NCAA Tournament in the coach’s first three seasons before gaining momentum over the past five years. They have won 29 or more victories four times in the last five seasons, and in the COVID-19 shortened 2019-20 season, they got 22-5-1. Minnesota State’s 125 wins since 2017-18 are the most in the country.

The NCAA tournament success was elusive until the Mavericks beat Quinnipiac in overtime last year in Loveland, Colo., And followed it up with a 4-0 rejection by Gophers. They fell 5-4 to St. Louis. Cloud State in a semifinal thriller in Pittsburgh.

“When I sat down with Kevin Buisman and our administration in the beginning, we wanted to try to build something that was sustainable that we could try to continue building on year in and year out,” Hastings said.

The program building received a great deal of help from the Minnesota State administration.

“Chairman [Richard] Davenport had seen what a successful hockey program can do for the institution, ” Buisman said of the former school president. “I knew he was willing to invest in it. I just kept committing to Mike: ‘Yep, yep, yep.’ ‘

Finding their home

The renovation and expansion of the Mayo System Healthcare Events Center in downtown Mankato, which began in 2015, allowed the Mavericks to move their headquarters out of the All-Seasons Arena, a place that coaches and administrators would avoid pointing to recruits. Now the Mayo Center is a place the program is proud of and which Mankato fans have embraced. The Mavericks’ average home participation this season was 4,662, or 96.5% of capacity.

On the ice, the Mavericks do not thrive on a list full of NHL prospects, rather Hastings sprinkles in such standouts as Olympian Nathan Smith from Hudson, Fla., Julian Napravnik from Bad Nauheim, Germany, and Ondrej Pavel from Prague, Czech Republic, with players who have had two or three years in the junior leagues. The Mavericks have two NHL draft picks on this team, while Gophers (14), Michigan (13) and Denver (12) were heavily dependent on draftee. According to College Hockey Inc. Minnesota State had the oldest team in the Frozen Four with an average of 22.9 years, while Gophers was the youngest with 21.6.

On Saturday, Hastings and his players will try to complete the vision the coach sold to his future boss at Pizza Ranch.

“It would just bring everything to reality. Mike is a little understated compared to the visionary he was, and says a championship is possible,” Buisman said. “… We saw what small colleges could do on the biggest stage, and we said, ‘Why not us? Why not us?'”

Leave a Comment