By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor
When Head Coach Dean Blais looks down his bench next season, a familiar face in Omaha hockey will no longer be by his side. Assistant Head Coach Mike Hastings, who spent 15 seasons with the Omaha Lancers and the last three with UNO, was named the head coach of the Minnesota State-Mankato hockey team last Saturday.
Reports from the Mankato Free Press indicated that Hastings was Minnesota State’s first choice to become the third head hockey coach in school history. According to a press release, Hastings agreed to a four-year contract with an annual salary of $225,000.
“There’s a lot of levels to it, there’s a lot of positives,” Hastings said about his decision to leave for Minnesota State. “You talk about location, [it’s] closer to family.”
“But I also wanna tell you I really think the commitment that the president and the university have towards trying to do everything they can to continue to build on what (former coaches) Troy Jutting and Don Brose have started as a foundation is very important. You can see the commitment they have for this to develop into a very good hockey program.”
Hastings takes over a program that went 8-18-2 last season and finished 11th in the WCHA. Minnesota State, who shares the nickname Mavericks with UNO, graduated seven seniors from last year’s team but return their top four scorers.
Hastings’ professional career started as an assistant at St. Cloud, one year as an assistant to the Lancers, then one year as an assistant back at St. Cloud before becoming the head coach of the Lancers for the next 14 seasons. In that time Hastings became the USHL’s winningest coach, piling up a 529-210-56 record.
Hastings never had a losing season as the head coach of the Lancers and led the team to three Clark Cup Championships, the playoff championship of the USHL. Twice Hastings received the USHL’s Coach of the Year award and five times he was named General Manager of the Year.
Fourteen seasons at the helm produced 35 NHL draft picks. Despite that Omaha history, Hastings said that Minnesota State’s offer was a unique opportunity that allowed him to take a job near family and head a program that is the premiere athletic program at the university.
“To see the commitment they have for this to develop into a very good hockey program, a program that’s gonna try and compete for championships down the road is very important too,” Hastings said. “You wanna be around good people and you wanna be around committed people.”
Hastings will take over for Minnesota State. in the final season of current WCHA conference membership. In 2013, Minnesota and Wisconsin are leaving the WCHA for the new B1G Ten conference while Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota, UNO and Hastings’ alma mater St. Cloud State will leave for the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
Though Minnesota State is one of four programs that will be left behind in new-look WCHA, five other programs are joining to increase membership to nine schools. The departure of eight schools also means the departure of the majority of the history and success of WCHA. The eight teams leaving take with them 28 national championships.
“To me it’s very important to be around people that are terrific, that are solid human beings,” Hastings said. “I have that at UNO. The goals there, the program that has continued to develop under Trev (Alberts) and Dean (Blais), and not just those two, the entire athletic department is special.”
“To me, I think it took a pretty special opportunity for me [to leave]. The history of the WCHA is changing, the whole landscape of hockey is changing. The Big Ten is trying to figure out what they’re gonna be, the NCHC is gonna figure out what they’re gonna be and we’re gonna try to forge our own path in the WCHA.”
Regardless of the fact that the more historical members of the WCHA are leaving the conference, Hastings feels that doesn’t change the direction of the conference. The WCHA has always been one of the top conferences in the nation and Hastings expects that to continue.
“I think the expectations have been elevated and that’s okay,” Hastings said. “I think players like being in an environment where there are expectations.”
But despite the opportunity ahead, Hastings said that leaving Omaha is one of the more difficult things he’s had to do. The year after his last season as head coach of the Lancers, Hastings became an assistant at Minnesota.
When Dean Blais was hired as the head coach in at UNO, it didn’t take much for him to lure Hastings back to Omaha. Even before he was an assistant with the Mavs, Hastings admired the UNO hockey program from across town.
Tuesday when Hastings came to campus to clean out his office for the final time, he was reminded of the reason he wanted to be with the Mavs.
“There wasn’t a person that I ran into at UNO that didn’t help anytime you asked,” Hastings said. “There’s an incredible amount of people there that are in it together.”
“I gotta tell you, the expectations of the head hockey coach there are the same expectations of the head softball coach, the head soccer coach on the women’s side, the head soccer coach on the men’s side, the baseball coach, the head basketball coach Derrin Hansen…you wanna talk about, I guess, if there’s one word that I could tell you that would encompass there is family.”
Out of all the moments, all the games, all the people and all the players that Hastings came in touch with at UNO, he credits Blais and Alberts as being the ones that left the biggest mark on him. As he becomes the head guy in Mankato, Hastings will take with him the perspective that Blais and Alberts brought with them to campus every day.
“Their drive for them to be as good as they can be as the hockey program’s leader and the athletic department’s leader…the daily pursuit of being the best is something that I’ll take forever. Every day they wanted to get better.”
“That’s one of the things that struck me when I came to UNO- the amount of successful people that are in that athletic department. There’s a lot of people there that are like-minded. I just think that the place is special. The future is very bright there, but I’m also gonna tell you that the future at Minnesota State University is incredibly bright also.”