Hastings Building Something Special at Minnesota State
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
WORCESTER, Mass. Johnny McInnis' collegiate career ended Saturday night. He and three of his teammates will never play for Minnesota State again.
Their final memory on the ice will always be a tough one. A last second faceoff to the left of the Massachusetts-Lowell goal, a final chance to tie, the buzzer that came before a desperation attempt to prolong their season. Those few seconds will bounce around in their heads for a few weeks. It'll seem like an eternity. That's not the whole story, though.
"Matt Leitner's crushed he didn't get that puck back to Johnny McInnis," MSU coach Mike Hastings said. "Johnny's had some heroics for us this year."
That memory won't just fade for now. There are some others that should stick in their minds, though.
Two consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. A WCHA Tournament Championship.
Minnesota State is on the rise. It's seniors and the work of Hastings since arriving in Mankato, Minn., to take the foundation already in place and build upon it. So, there's some reason to be disappointed with Saturday's result, but there's even more to celebrate.
"No regrets other than not moving on," Hastings said.
That's the mindset of this program. Work hard. Improve. Become better people, better hockey players and a better hockey team. The rest will take care of itself. Championships won't come every season. Some disappointment is inevitable.
"We talked a lot during the year about at the end of the day we shouldn't have a lot of tears," Hastings said. "If we do what we should do, then there's really no regrets. There's nothing to worry about, you laid it all out there."
Things have changed a lot in Mankato since Hastings arrive. The contribution of Troy Jutting and his various assistants can't be ignored, but the program had clearly stagnated.
Almost instantly, Hastings turned his players into believers in themselves, each other and Minnesota State. No matter the influence of a coach, talent typically wins hockey games, but it's useless without direction and confidence.
"(Hastings) came in with a plan and made us believe we were a great hockey team from day one," McInnis said. "He's stepped in and told us we were going to go places we have never been before. He believed in us and made us believes in ourselves. Without believing in yourself, you're not going to get to this spot or anywhere. We owe a lot to him."
McInnis, specifically, seemed to thrive under Hastings. After scoring nine goals in his first two season with the Mavericks, he added 13 as a junior and 21 as a senior this season.
McInnis' development is especially interesting and important for the program. Mid-level programs trying to gain more prominence need success stories. They need tangible examples of their own ability to development talent and win games to attract future recruits. Having even one winning season is a success for some, sustaining that success is even more difficult.
Hastings believes McInnis' development and that of some others are the type of stories he needs to sell future Mavericks. Moreover, the university and athletic department support him completely.
"You can tell Johnny McInnis' story," Hastings said. "Over the last two years, a guy like Eriah Hayes, who plays in this building on a nightly basis for (the AHL's) Worcester (Sharks), went from La Crescent, Minn., to two years in juniors … and then comes in. He has an OK first three years then scores 20 in his last year. Here, in his second or third game (for the Sharks) I think he had 10 shots on net. Telling those stories, and then … campus. It's beautiful. The way our administration supports our student athletes to make sure they have everything they need in the rink and away from the rink. They enjoy what they see, and they're impressed by it. As you saw with my players, the more time they have on campus, the more they're impressed by it.
"If we can keep bringing people, let alone hockey players, like Johnny McInnis to our program, we're going to be successful. It's tough to see him leave, but what he's done and the legacy he's left is one he can be proud of."
Following Saturday's game, disappointment wasn't the tone set by Minnesota State. They wanted the win, of course, but that concept of playing well and seeing where it all ends up worked well for the club. They're good enough to win hockey games, just not the one in Worcester on Saturday. The players returning next season know they're expected to build on this.
"One of the first things I said when I got into the locker room was don't forget how (Saturday night) feels," McInnis said. "I know the Frozen Four is back here next year. I'm not kidding when I say this, these guys have a legitimate shot of getting there. With the firepower and the goaltending they bring back, not to mention our coach, there's no reason they shouldn't."
Hastings believes it, too.
"The guys aren't satisfied with just having some success," he said. "That was a tough locker room to walk into tonight just because they did everything they could to win."
Four players took that Minnesota State sweater off for the final time on Saturday night. Left with those final few memories of a hard-fought game that ended in a one-goal loss, they won't forget this one for a little while.
There are more memories, though, from their time in Mankato. The WCHA Tournament they won and a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances chief among them. More of those are sure to come for these players and this program, but none of them are possible without Saturday night's game. A tough loss, but, for McInnis and all the former MSU players, something special started Saturday night.