In an interview with the Times earlier this month, Minnesota State head men's hockey coach Mike Hastings put to rest the widespread rumors that he was interested in the head coaching position for the Pirate boys' hockey team.
No, the Crookston native likes where he is at, leading the Mavericks to their second ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament after finishing fourth in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association with a record of 24-13-3 all in his first season.
The Hastings family moved from Eugene, Ore. to Crookston when Mike was six years old. His parents, Lloyd and Marlene, still live here as do his sister, Sandy, and her family.
Hastings, who now makes his home in North Mankato with his wife Jean Ann and their daughter, Hannah, and son, Hudson, was named WCHA Coach of the Year and is a finalist for the Spencer Penrose Award, national coach of the year, which will be announced May 4.
"I've never seen a coach get that without other people driving that bus," Hastings said about those coaching awards in an interview with the Times. "I'm honored and humbled by it. I feel honored but a lot of that goes back to players and staff that helped us have the season we had."
Eye on the Pirates
Hastings graduated from CHS in 1984 and went on to play college hockey at St. Cloud State. He is a regular at the annual alumni games and follows the Pirate boys' hockey team.
"Those are some pretty big shoes to fill," he said of Jon Bittner stepping down as Pirate head coach. "Bitts did a great job. It's a program I've always watched. Hopefully they can get somebody to carry that torch."
Hastings had more high praise for Bittner and the program he is proud to have come out of.
"It goes back to coach Bittner and what he stands for is so important," he said. "One word about Bitts, he's a giver. In that position you need someone that's a giver. There are not many communities that have the facility that Crookston has. I hope that that's something they can develop. It's dollars and volunteers. I hope that someone can take the torch from Bittner and people before him and continue to progress it."
Do you believe in miracles?
After graduating from CHS, Hastings played two seasons in the United States Hockey League before going to St. Cloud State, which was transitioning from Division III to Division I, to play for Herb Brooks and Craig Dahl.
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Hastings played two seasons (1986-87 and 1987-88) with the Huskies before a back injury cut his playing career short. Dahl, the head coach of St. Cloud State in Hasting's sophomore year, allowed him to stay on as a coach.
"My sophomore season I fractured my two lower vertebrae," Hastings said. "Craig Dahl gave me an opportunity. I was pretty confused at that time. I didn't plan on my career being done at that time. He easily could've said, 'thanks you can keep scholarship money.' But I owe a lot to Craig. He gave me an opportunity when he didn't need to."
Hastings was recruited to play at St. Cloud State by the legendary Brooks. He also had interest from Bemidji State, Alaska, Army and some other schools.
"I feel fortunate to be able to have had him as a coach," Hastings said of Brooks. "After the fact, I can't say we were incredibly close, but I felt comfortable talking to him about hockey. Herb was pretty straight forward. Lot of black and white and not much gray."
Hastings path to Minnesota State is like many coaches, a year here, a two seasons there, back to here and then a brand new place.
But despite moving around to a number of different organizations, Hastings has coached in just four cities over the years with the first being St. Cloud, then to Omaha, Neb., then back to St. Cloud, then back to Omaha, then to Minneapolis, then back to Omaha and here we are in Mankato.
After a year as an assistant with the USHL's Omaha Lancers sandwiched by two years as an assistant at St. Cloud State, Hastings became head coach of the Lancers in 1994. In 14 seasons he won three league championships and three runners-up and won more than 70 percent of his games (529-210-56).
"I was fortunate," Hastings said about the Lancers. "Ted Baer, the owner at that time, gave me an opportunity and Mike Guentzel left me a great hockey team. The USHL is a great league on the relationship side of things, dealing with young men with goals beyond hockey. The USHL is a great teaching ground. It's a very humbling league. You are challenged on a daily basis and I got a chance to be able to work with a lot of really good people and really good hockey players."
After winning his third championship with the Lancers, Hastings took an assistant position with University of Minnesota and head coach Don Lucia for the 2008-09 season. He then joined Dean Blais at University of Nebraska-Omaha as an associate head coach for three seasons.
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"After 14 years you get a little accustomed, as a head coach, to making your own mistakes and learning from them," Hastings explained. "Back to the collegiate side of things, I had an opportunity to work with Don Lucia and Dean Blais. To go work with two guys with four national championships, that's an experience you can't put on paper. From a professional side of things, it was a great opportunity, but from a relationship side of things they were great people. They put family first but then not too far behind was their team, players and staff."
Hastings is a family man too and takes moving jobs seriously.
"It's part of the business," he said. "In coaching now days it's getting more prevalent that you don't get to dictate timing. When you start out you're driven on your career objective. Once you get married and have a family you make decisions based on family first and career objectives second. I don't think there's a human being you could meet that hasn't said my wife isn't the better half of the relationship."
Hastings said he had opportunities to go other places but decided Mankato was the best fit for him and his family.
"I had some opportunities and other options previously," Hastings said. "The opportunity here is one that I think had so many pieces that were positives. Both my wife and I are from Minnesota. It's important with two young children that want to see their grandparents and cousins. I wanted to become a head coach again and it was important to have that opportunity. And I wanted to be surrounded by people with a mindset of commitment. From President Davenport on down there is a plan with this program and they are committed to take care of student-athletes. We want to bring the program to the level of expectation to succeed on a yearly basis. We want the student-athletes' experience to be as positive as it can be. The community has been fantastic. Their acceptance of family has been fantastic. I wanted to be a head coach sooner rather than later and get that stability for our children."
Hastings' decision to take the Minnesota State job has turned out pretty well to this point.
"This is a very tight knit community," he said. "I was hoping it was going to be a real good fit and it's been better than I could've imagined for myself and family."
Hastings inherited two assistant coaches from his predecessor, Troy Jutting. Those assistants impressed Hastings so much, though, that he kept them on staff. He also has a connection with those assistants, Darren Blue and Todd Knott.
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"My assistants are from East Grand Forks and Red Lake Falls," noted Hastings. "So we have a good Section 8 thing going on. Not only are they good coaches but they are good people. It is fun when you have good people around you and don't mind going to work.
"The University and administration gave me complete control of who I wanted to hire," Hastings continued. "I took the time I needed to make sure I was hiring the right type of people. I couldn't be happier with the guys. It was something they left up to me. I took the time to experience them see what the players thought of them. They are two very driven young men."
Not only did Minnesota State have a successful first season under Hastings on the ice, but they were successful in the classroom as well.
"The experience here has been exceptional from the standpoint of the big picture and balancing what these guys are after," he continued. "We get judged on the score. The great thing about college athletics is the balance young men have to have in their lives. It's not just chasing a puck. We want to be in position to win our last game. When I step back from this season I thought we had a very good year, both on and off the ice. Our players were above a 3.3 GPA. It's an important balancing act in doing well in the classroom and on the ice. We had some really good seniors. Now this program has some expectations we can build on."
With a number of teams leaving the WCHA next season, Hastings has the top team returning based on the previous season's record.
"Hopefully we can keep pushing the bar little further," he said. "Our expectation will be to try and compete for a championship next year. The goals this year were to get home ice and make the Final Five and get an NCAA berth. We will reassess our goals for next year. It's not going to be much different. I am looking forward to try and pursue that and to try and get better. We've got some returning players guys that have goals set for this group."
Philosophy and future
As is the case with any successful program, at any level, the Mavericks are a family. Hastings believes that when players play for each other they all succeed.
"There needs to be accountability in what we do every day," he said. "We set goals and put together a game plan and you surround yourself with good people. Understand that it's a we not a me orientated environment. It's not me and they. We are building a family type atmosphere where we take care of each other, and everyone is responsible to each guy in the locker room."
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Like most college and professional coaches, Hastings doesn't like to look into the future. He is grounded in improving Minnesota State each day he goes to work, and he most certainly has not forgotten where he has come from.
"I found in our profession if you get too far ahead of yourself it's a waste of energy," he said. "We are focusing on what's in our control. I am a blessed man with an unbelievable wife, my kids are healthy, I work with great people, great student-athletes and I'm coaching hockey for a living. Putting all that together, I'm tremendously thankful for all those things. I never really thought about too far down the road. You can't control tomorrow, next week or next year.
"I am focusing on good spring and a good spring with my wife and children," Hastings continued. "During the hockey season they give so much. It's time for me to give back to them."
Hastings credits his parents, Lloyd and Marlene, with all that he has accomplished.
"There are two poeple that I have the utmost respect for and they are the only reason I'm here, and that is mom and dad," he said. "Their love and support and the type of people they are means so much. They gave me many opportunities to get to this point. They let me chase a puck for a while. They let me follow a passion and it was hockey."