LOVELAND, COLO. — They went to school and played hockey together at St. Cloud State, Bob Motzko as a Huskies forward and Mike Hastings as a defenseman. They both cut their coaching teeth in the U.S. Hockey League, and later spent time as college assistants, including stints at Minnesota. On Sunday night in an arena on the Front Range of the Rockies, Bob Motzko and Mike Hastings will face each other with a Frozen Four berth at stake.
Motzko's top-seeded Minnesota Gophers will play Hastings' No. 2-seeded Minnesota State Mankato Mavericks in the NCAA West Regional final at 7 p.m. (Central) at the Budweiser Events Center. The winner joins Midwest Regional champion Minnesota Duluth, Massachusetts and the winner of Sunday afternoon's St. Cloud State-Boston College Northeast Regional final in the Frozen Four on April 8 and 10 in Pittsburgh.
On Saturday, both Motzko and Hastings achieved milestone victories in the NCAA tournament. For Motzko, the Gophers' 7-2 rout of Nebraska Omaha was his first NCAA triumph as Minnesota's head coach, though he was an assistant on the 2002 and '03 national championship teams before leaving to become St. Cloud State's head coach. For Hastings, the Mavericks' 4-3 overtime victory over Quinnipiac was his first NCAA win in six tries and Minnesota State's first in seven attempts.
"They're the winningest team in college hockey over the last four years,'' Motzko said of the Mavericks' 113 wins in that span. "We went to college together, and Mike and I are very close friends. What he did at the USHL, he's doing it as a college coach. I told our team 'It's going to be one of the toughest games we ever play tomorrow.' ''
Motzko, in his third season as Gophers coach after Don Lucia stepped down, has Minnesota back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017 and secured the program's first NCAA victory since the 2014 team made it to the national championship game. He said he didn't have his team focusing on a return to glory.
"We don't talk about that message. We talk about this is the 100th year of Gopher hockey,'' said Motzko, whose team is 24-6 and won the Big Ten tournament title. "There have been a whole lot better coaches come through this program than me. The 100th year, we just wanted to do it proud. It's too bad COVID hit for all of us, in every facet of life. We had just wonderful things to celebrate and weren't able to.''
Going hand-in-hand with the Gophers' success has been the approach Motzko has instilled.
"We wanted to have a work ethic to our team and some grit to make our alumni proud,'' he said. "They've been doing that, and we're very fortunate that these kids are tremendous leaders and are buying in.''
At Minnesota State, Hastings has built a program that won its fourth consecutive WCHA regular-season title and is playing in its fourth consecutive NCAA tournament. His best team might have been last year's squad that went 31-5-2 before the coronavirus pandemic prompted sports to be shut down. That 2019-20 Mavericks squad owned a sweep of Minnesota Duluth in Duluth and a win and tie over North Dakota in Mankato.
This season's Mavericks improved to 21-4-1 with the comeback from a two-goal, third-period deficit against Quinnipiac. In the process, Hastings' team won an NCAA tournament game for the first time as a Division I program. The Mavericks had endured heartbreaks like the 2-1 first-round loss to Rochester Institute of Technology when MSU was the No. 1 overall seed; a 3-2 overtime loss to Minnesota Duluth in 2018; and the 6-3 loss at Providence in 2019, when they led 3-0 in the first period.
"You harbor the angst the young men went through,'' Hastings said of those teams. "… If you're ever going to try to scale a mountain, you've got to get to the base. We visited the base.''
Now, they'll try to visit the Frozen Four but first will have to get through the Gophers on Sunday night.
"This one is one we're going to be excited about until we go to bed tonight,'' Hastings said after Saturday's game, before he knew who his opponent Sunday would be. "We've got a lot of work ahead of us, and we're worried about the opportunity tomorrow. We weren't planning to be one and done. We're planning to win the region.''
Motzko might have other ideas for his friend. He turned 60 on Saturday, was asked if the win over Nebraska Omaha qualified as a birthday wish come true.
"It's a two-parter,'' he said. "This is just the first part.''