MANKATO — John Harrington knows a bit about being an underdog. After all, he was a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, which pulled off what is largely regarded as the biggest upset in sports history when it beat the mighty Soviet Union in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Harrington now is in his fifth year as Minnesota State’s women’s hockey coach, and his challenge is making the Mavericks contenders in a rugged WCHA women’s league that has produced 16 of the 19 national champions in NCAA history. Minnesota State went 3-32-1 in the season before Harrington’s arrival in Mankato, and the Mavericks have shown steady improvement, going from 5-28-1 in 2017-18 to 9-19-7 last season.
“It’s getting the confidence that you can compete against teams. Little by little, you gain that,” said Harrington, the men’s hockey coach at Division III St. John’s from 1993-2008. “It’s hard to have that if you’ve never had that. We have to continue to work and get to the point where we have a win against top teams where we can say, ‘Yes we can’ instead of ‘Boy, I wonder if this is going to work out.’ “
The Mavericks opened the season on a strong note, sweeping Rensselaer 3-0 and 4-0 on the road and getting three goals and an assist from sophomore forward Mariah Gardner and four assists from freshman forward Kelsey King. Then came last weekend, when reigning NCAA runner-up Minnesota left the Mankato Civic Center with 6-0 and 7-1 victories.
The losses, Harrington said, will serve as lessons.
“Watching them play and seeing their ability to stay at it and keep on the pressure, it’s like a boa constrictor — you’re getting squeezed and you think you’re doing OK, but at the end you’re really dead,” Harrington said of the second-ranked Gophers. “They’re a veteran team. We learned how to play hard and how to compete on pucks.”
That trial-by-fire situation will continue Friday and Saturday at No. 9 Minnesota Duluth, followed by a home series against No. 8 Ohio State. In November, the Mavericks face No. 1 Wisconsin in Madison and No. 4 Clarkson in a tournament in Vermont.
“I don’t know who the coach was who made that schedule,” Harrington joked before adding, “you get better playing good teams, and we’ll get better because of this last weekend.”
The Mavericks are getting better, too, because of improved recruiting. Goalie Abigail Levy and defenseman Anna Wilgren both made the WCHA All-Rookie team last season and were among five Mavericks who participated in U.S. national team camp this summer. “That’s exciting to know those people are getting recognized as good hockey players,” Harrington said. “They’re going to help make our program better.”
Harrington also points to the improvements at Mankato Civic Center as helping, too.
“It’s as fine a facility as anybody has,” he said. “… It’s been tremendous. It’s a destination for our players, instead of saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got to go to the rink.’ You can study here, work out here, practice here. It’s been a huge drawing card for our program.’’