MANKATO — Coach Mike Hastings is fond of saying his Minnesota State Mankato players must start a hockey season by “building their book of business,” the résumé by which they will be judged in March.
Well, business was booming along the banks of the Minnesota River.
Dominant all season long, the Mavericks fashioned a 31-5-2 record, again captured the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA regular-season champs and sat No. 2 in the national rankings.
In a program where past disappointments linger — with an 0-6 all-time record in the NCAA Division I tournament — this was supposed to be the year, especially with a talented, senior-laden team.
But Thursday, the Mavericks and their long-suffering fans saw their dreams come to a screeching halt, when the NCAA canceled the rest of the season over concerns from the coronavirus pandemic.
“We as coaches are supposed to give answers, be problem-solvers,” Hastings said Friday, reflecting on how hard it was to tell his players the news. “Now, you can’t. ‘What now, Coach?’ ”
What now indeed.
The sports world is filled with teams and cities despairing last week’s developments. In college hockey, the news hit hard in places such as Grand Forks, N.D., where the Fighting Hawks were the oddsmakers’ favorites to win their ninth NCAA title; in Ithaca, N.Y., where Cornell was ranked No. 1 in both the men’s and women’s national polls; and in the Twin Ports, where Minnesota Duluth and coach Scott Sandelin were aiming for an NCAA championship three-peat, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since Michigan did so from 1951 to ’53.
Still, it could be argued that no hockey program was hit harder than Minnesota State.
“Everyone really felt like this was going to be the year they got the monkey off their back,’’ said Lindsey Botker of Mankato, who has had Mavericks season tickets for 10 years. “They were just really poised to go deep, and we were hoping to go see them in Detroit [in the Frozen Four].’’
Hastings, a Crookston, Minn., native who has guided the Mavericks to a nation-best 92 wins over the past three seasons, welcomes such pressure.
“Oh, I know what the expectations were,’’ he said with a laugh. “They’ve talked about it since the last time we didn’t move on. We talked as a team: You don’t run from those, you run to them. You embrace them.’’
Senior captain Marc Michaelis, the team’s leading scorer, sprinted headfirst toward those expectations. He saw the team’s potential and embraced its mission.
“We were ready to face our demons,’’ the Mannheim, Germany, native said.
Added Jason Beal, president of the Blue Line Club booster group: “That’s the hardest thing. That’s the big question mark now. We’ll never know.’’
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Blue Bricks is a sprawling bar and restaurant in downtown Mankato, a few blocks away from the Mavericks’ home arena. At 4:30 p.m. Friday, a squadron of servers were lined up at the end of the bar with few patrons to serve. Nate Nagy, a bar manager, prepared to cut a few servers loose for the evening.
“Usually, it’s getting packed in here by now,’’ he said.
Friday was supposed to be another Mavericks hockey night, the playoff series opener against Michigan Tech. Even with students on spring break, crowds of up to 4,000 were expected for each game, according to assistant athletic director Paul Allan. The Mavericks averaged a program-best 4,423 this season.
TJ Palesotti, the team’s public address announcer, is the ring leader for the team’s stirring pregame introductions. With the lights dimmed, the crowd on its feet and Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold” blaring, Palesotti’s distinctive voice usually fills the arena.
Between the hockey games and a St. Jude Radiothon, Palesotti thought he would have his hands full all weekend. Then the hockey vanished.
“I would have much rather been completely exhausted on Sunday,’ he said.
With the arena silent, and no bustling pregame activities in the downtown pubs, Mankato had a different Friday night feel.
“It’s real unfortunate for the local businesses,’’ said Dennis Waskul, a professor of sociology at Minnesota State. “The loss of hockey has a huge, huge impact on the downtown businesses, hotels, bars, restaurants, but I do think it was the right decision [to cancel the games].’’
Angi Proehl was the lone bartender in Blue Bricks’ main bar, and she noticed the absence of sports on the TVs right away. CNN had replaced ESPN. “I came in and the TV was on, and I turned off the sound,’’ she said, tired of bad news. “I was like, ‘Let’s put the music on.’ ’’
Proehl has seen how the Mavericks’ success has united the community. “We’ve had a great team — for several years,’’ she said. “People are really proud.’’
• • •
Emotions still were raw Friday afternoon, with time yet to heal what transpired in the previous two days. A virus that started half a world away suddenly was changing careers of hockey players in southern Minnesota.
“Hitting the pillow the night before, I thought we were going to play against Michigan Tech in a three-game series,’’ said Parker Tuomie, one of seven seniors on the team and the Mavericks’ second-leading scorer. “… When the WCHA [tournament] got canceled, everybody saw the rest coming. It was a terrible, terrible day [Thursday].’’
Wednesday came the news that the WCHA would finish its playoffs without fans in the stands, only essential personnel and a limited number of players families. Players, Hastings said, rushed to their phones to alert their families of the restrictions.
“When I walked down the hall and there were eight different conversations going on for the athletes, all of a sudden it hit them, too,’’ Hastings said.
Later Wednesday, the NBA announced it was suspending its season, the big domino that started all of them falling.
For Mavericks players, the appearance of athletic director Kevin Buisman at the hockey arena twice in one day Thursday was ominous.
“When they see an athletic director around the locker room, it’s, ‘What’s going on?’ ’’ Hastings said. “They’d already gone through that once that day, and second time, I could hear them: ‘He’s back.’ ’’
At 4 p.m., Hastings informed his team of the NCAA’s decision. Tears flowed, both ways.
“I told my wife when I got home, ‘I lost it a little bit when I walked into that [locker] room,’ ’’ Hastings said. “Our two captains [Michaelis and Nick Rivera] are right around the corner when you walk into the room. … You feel for them.’’
Michaelis, who turned down pro offers to return for his senior year, took the news especially hard.
“It wasn’t even a reaction, just complete emptiness,’’ Michaelis said. “As the day proceeded, it was just bad news after bad news. You can see in the eyes of your teammates, your brothers that it’s coming to an end. Extremely disappointed. Every single one of us respects the decision.’’
Senior defenseman Ian Scheid said: “You imagine the end being on the ice, hugging your teammates. Instead, you’re in the locker room with your street clothes on.’’
After the Mavericks got word that the WCHA playoffs were canceled, an empty feeling hovered over the locker room, a place where they had spent so much time together over the past six months.
Before long someone got an idea. They still had the facility reserved, so they did what hockey players do. They hit the ice.
“Most of us decided to go out and play against each other one more time, Purple against White,” Tuomie said. “We had our trophies out there and had a little fun with it.”
No one was certain when Mankato would get another chance.