When Mike Hastings left the University of Minnesota in 2009 after spending one season as an assistant hockey coach, it was to put himself in the best position to become a Division I head coach.

Most assumed that would be at the Nebraska Omaha, though, instead of Minnesota State Mankato. At UNO, he had become Dean Blais' associate head coach, and the goal was to be the heir apparent once Blais, 61, decided to retire.

"But we don't get to dictate timing or opportunity," Hastings said.

"Opportunity comes, you better be careful at closing doors. Dean can tell me as long as he wants that he might be leaving pretty soon, but do you know many guys that are 60 years old with the drive and the fire that man has? So when opportunity comes, you better grab on."

There are only 59 Division I hockey programs in the country -- "it's not like in basketball or football where there's 300 jobs," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. So when the Minnesota State job opened up, Hastings, after some lamenting, decided he couldn't afford to wait for Blais to pass the baton.

The Mavericks provided Hastings a chance to return to Minnesota. The 1993 St. Cloud State graduate grew up in Crookston. His wife, Jean-Ann, is from Hoyt Lakes.

And going to Mankato would fulfill his desire to run his own Division I program, "build on what's here already and, hopefully, have your fingerprints on the progression of a program that is looking to get better."

Six games into his tenure, the Mavericks are 2-2-2 heading into Hastings' first-ever meeting with the big, bad Gophers. Coming off consecutive 5-1 road losses to his alma mater, the Mavericks will play a home-and-home series against the nation's No. 2-ranked team.

"It's an opportunity for us to judge ourselves against one of the best teams in the country," Hastings said.

Roots in USHL

At 46, Hastings has been entrenched in the game ever since he was playing for Frank Serratore on the old Rochester Mustangs in 1985. Lucia, then an assistant at Alaska Anchorage, even recruited Hastings, "but he was a wimp and didn't want to go to Alaska," joked Lucia.

Hastings played at St. Cloud State but fractured two vertebrae in his back 15 games into his second season. That ended his playing career and eventually thrust him into coaching, leading him to the United States Hockey League's Omaha Lancers.

He coached the Lancers from 1994 to 2008, becoming the winningest coach in USHL history (529-210-56), never having a losing season and leading the team to six league finals and three championships. He was the Coach of the Year in the USHL three times and General Manager of the Year five times -- guiding a number of future NHLers, including Keith Ballard, Paul Stastny, Martin Hanzal, Matt Carle and former Wild player Jed Ortmeyer.

"The USHL is a college developmental league and I don't think that's only for the players," Hastings said. "I think it's a great learning ground for a lot of different avenues -- building a team, dealing with young men and the student-athlete and kids being away from home for the first time."

But after 14 seasons, the grind became too much and he felt like it was time to "pay back my family for what they've given me. My wife's been a blind supporter of myself professionally," Hastings said. He wanted to spend more time with his daughter Hannah, 13, and son, Hudson, 10 -- something that's difficult when you annually start coaching in August and potentially go until May.

Caring coach

Hastings spent one year with the Gophers, but Blais -- who is still the head coach at Nebraska Omaha -- said: "I was lucky enough to get him back here, thinking it would be a natural for him to take over when I left. This was home for Mike, but with Minnesota State, it won't be a tough transition because he was pretty much a head coach with me."

Blais calls Hastings "caring, knowledgeable and tough. Hates to lose. If you described Mike Hastings in a couple words, it would be 'very intense.'"

"I think he's just deflecting the time bomb and sliding it down," Hastings said, laughing. "There's a clip of him punching me on the bench one time, and I can tell you, I wasn't the one being intense.

"Yeah, I'm intense, but there's a time for that. But the game's changed where players need to know you have their back. That relationship-building piece has become really important to having longterm success, and that's what I plan to bring to [Minnesota State]."