Q&A with Minnesota State Coach Mike Hastings
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Mike Hastings was named the new head coach at Minnesota State during the offseason. He is the all-time wins leader in the USHL, but this is his first head coaching job in Division I college hockey. Hastings played at St. Cloud State under Craig Dahl, but a back injury ended his career early. Dahl made him a graduate assistant, which started his coaching road. He eventually spent some time in college hockey, before landing with Omaha in the USHL, where he spent 14 seasons. He came back to college hockey to be an assistant at Minnesota, then, after one year, left to go back to Omaha as an assistant at UNO under Dean Blais, before finally landing at Minnesota State.
CHN: How has the transition been so far?
Hastings: It's been good. I think a couple things that have made that probably easier than it possibly could've been was, one, I think we have two very strong seniors right now in our leadership group — Tyler Elbrecht and Eriah Hayes. We've got five seniors, but Ty played for me when we were in Omaha (USHL) together so I had a relationship with him. And Hayes — those two have established themslves in a leadership role this summer. It's their last kick at the can and their opportunity to make a statement on what was important to them in terms of leaving their legacy on the program. Two, I'm fortunate to have Todd Knott and Darren Blue on my staff, two guys that have been around the program.
CHN: Was there a question in bringing the two assistants back?
Hastings: I don't know if it was a question, but it was one that I definitely did my due diligence on. I've known Darren for many years, and I'd known of Todd but not as much. ...I took time to make that decision. It wasn't one that was made in a hurry. It was a little difficult on both Darren and Todd in terms of not knowing, but I was very up front from the time I took the position that I wanted to spend time with them and see if the fit was going to be what we all wanted it to be. I did not get any pressure from the administration to retain either party. But I'll also tell you, in the time frame I have gotten to know them, I'd say the reputation of both men, on campus and even in our locker room, was one that helped me make my decision.
CHN: You're coming to Minnesota State at a time when things are changing for the WCHA, and your old team, Nebraska-Omaha is about to head to a big new conference.
Hastings: I have a tremendous amount of respect for Nebraska. It's a program in great hands with (athletic director) Trev Alberts and (coach) Dean Blais. I not only respect them both, but they're both good people, I consider them good friends. Also, from a standpoint of leaving there, both my children were born there. So it took a pretty special opportunity to leave. There's not a lot of head coaching jobs in the country. And when you start paring that down ... well, I'm from Minnesota, my wife's from Minnesota, I had an opportunity to work for the University of Minnesota. I just really liked what I saw in terms of commitment from the university in terms of reinvesting in the future of the program — financially, and just in stating it's something that's important to our university. They said they wanted the hockey program to be the window to our university from an athletic standpoint. ... And I also believe we're in an advantageous place geographicaly. We're in the footprint of the USHL and the NAHL, we're in the footprint of Minnesota high school hockey, and we're not far from a very good AAA midget program with Shattuck St. Mary. So from a recruiting standpoint, there's areas we have to do a better job at retaining players from those areas.
CHN: Minnesota State has always gotten good players. Were you concerned that could change given the change in the makeup of the WCHA?
Hastings: I think hockey mirrors life a little bit. We can focus on what we can control and what will happen, (but) if we focus on what's not there, or what we're not in, it's wasted time and effort. So one of the biggest messages we've tried to have is, let's control what we control and establish that we're going to put standards on ourselves in terms of what we're going to accomplish. And at the end of the day, there's a scoreboard for everybody — for business it's the bottom line; for hockey teams, it's Friday and Saturday night. We'll control what we can, because in life, you don't get the opportunity to control a lot of things. We'll focus on the university's mandate, focus on excellence, and be active. We can create an environment of success. And if we start there, who knows where it can end up. If you would ask people in college hockey two years ago if there would be a Big Ten Hockey Conference, a new WCHA, Notre Dame into Hockey East, people would've called you nuts. So who knows what will happen in the next 24 months. And if you get caught looking at where you've been or get too far ahead, you get lost.
CHN: So what are your expectations for this year?
Hastings: Predictions are something to talk about, that's about it. So, our expectation is being better than we were a year ago, and being better at, not just finishing, but being better in the league. We have some question marks. We have a senior goaltender, a junior goaltender and a freshman. The senior hasn't had the ball handed to him, the freshman hasn't, and the junior hasn't played a lot of minutes. We need someone to step up, so there's a great competition going on between the posts. Secondly we need to capitalize on what the freshmen did last season. I was fortunate in Omaha to have a great freshman class, then as sopomhores, they fell into that sophomore slump. We need the freshmen of a year ago to not drop into that slump, and we need the five seniors we have to lead.
I'd like to tell you I have it all figured out, but I'm learning about them, and they're learning about myself. Whether it's different, is up to them because I wasn't here. But I've been appreciative to the buying in.
CHN: Do you have a style you like to play, or will you base it on your roster?
Hastings: You have to see what you have at your disposal. So if you have defensemen who can hang with forwards and hang a crooked number up, you have a tendency to go out and push it. My philosophy is, I think about it as a player — you have to defend, but it was a heckuva lot more fun when we had the puck. So hopefully we'll be a team that possesses the puck a little bit. I want to be difficult to play against, but (what that means) can be as thick as a thesaurus. Ultimately, we want to do the things that are attainable. We gotta be disciplined — last year we were second in the league in penalty minutes. I don't see that being a great situation for us. You look at the amount of draft picks Minnesota and Wisconsin will parade on the ice sheet when we play, and if we're going to allow them to have 5-on-4s we might as well give them a gun. People can say go out and be intimidating, but I don't think that works anymore. And we also need to be in elite shape. If we want to play a pressure style, we have to be one of the most conditioned teams in the country.
CHN: Players like J.P. Lafontaine and Matt Leitner put up big numbers as freshmen. What did you notice from a distance last year, and what is their upside?
Hastings: It's a great challenge for both of them. That's where the bar has been set and you want to be above the bar. So if they can get more support from the new freshmen, and the seniors are going from being support players to actually being the leaders, (they will get even better). That's where you have a lot of excitement. There's no one saying, "We hope this will get done." We have to take it.
CHN: Now you're a head coach a the Division I level. Are you nervous or excited for the opening game?
Hastings: It's been four years since I've had an opportunity to be a head coach. And that's why I got back into (college hockey). I got a great opportunity from Don (Lucia) and then from Dean (Blais), and now there was the opportunity to come here. So this is what you really want to do. It's the same thing as players getting prepared, and we're all doing this together.