The list of Minnesota athletic teams that did not get a chance to turn an excellent winter into postseason glory would number a couple of dozen, if we were to include high school basketball.
The opinion here is that our two teams affected most dramatically when sports were shut down by the pandemic in mid-March were men’s college hockey clubs: Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State Mankato.
Duluth’s Bulldogs were certain to be in the 16-team field with a shot to become the first program to win three years in a row since Michigan from 1951-53, when the NCAA tournament was in its infancy.
Mankato’s Mavericks had veterans dedicated to putting past NCAA woes behind them, a 31-5-2 record, another WCHA regular-season title and a grip on a No. 1 regional seed.
My choice for the hardest puck taken to the ankles would be Mike Hastings’ Mavericks, based on so much time building this lineup in a place that’s not geographically a hockey mecca, compared to Duluth, with its tremendous tradition.
This was exemplified on April 11, a month after the shutdown, when defenseman Scott Perunovich was announced as the Bulldogs’ sixth winner of the Hobey Baker award. That is the most Hobeys for a school in the 40 years of the award, ahead of the Gophers and Harvard with four apiece.
Hastings being able to again put together a lineup like this — strong from the goal forward — will take some doin’ in Mankato.
“There’s so much to concern us in the world now, so many people with much-bigger problems, it would be ridiculous to mope about it,’’ Hastings said in a recent phone conversation. “There are those quiet moments when you think about it, of course — the guys that are done now, and how dedicated they were toward making a tournament run.
“A college hockey coach spends most of his time trying to plug holes. When we had our lineup, I didn’t have much plugging to do. We were good everywhere.’’
The Mavericks were the No. 3 overall seed when they lost 6-3 vs. Providence (at Providence) in their 2019 NCAA opener. That put them at 0-5 in the Hastings era and 0-6 overall in NCAA play.
Three players with a chance for pro contracts — forwards Marc Michaelis and Parker Tuomie and defenseman Connor Mackey — returned to take another shot in 2019-20.
Tuomie was being interviewed in December, dodged around a bit and then made the admission: “We couldn’t leave it like that. We needed to make another try.’’
Example A of the Mavs’ dedication was Michaelis, the smallish, buzz saw forward from Mannheim, Germany.
“He is an amazing person, an amazing leader,’’ Hastings said. “He was playing great and then, in the middle of January, he suffered a hip injury similar to the one that sidelined the Alabama quarterback, Tua [Tagovailoa].
“Marc surprised us by coming back in a month. And he was rolling again in the first round of the playoffs against Anchorage.’’
Mankato was scheduled to host Michigan Tech in the WCHA’s second round starting March 13 when the playoffs were called off. The NCAA’s decision to shut down sports followed.
Hastings broke the news to his team. The players suffered for a time, then decided to choose up squads for a scrimmage. The Jeff Sauer Trophy for the WCHA playoff champions already was in the Mavericks’ possession from 2019, so the split squads played for it.
“Josh French, one of our seniors, scored the winner, and then his squad carried the Jeff Sauer Trophy around our ice,’’ Hastings said.
Calgary won a bidding contest to sign Mackey, a junior. Michaelis signed with Vancouver. Other departing seniors are getting pro deals. Dryden McKay, the well-named, exceptional sophomore goalie, has a chance to sign, even at 5-10.
“As far as I know, Dryden is coming back,’’ Hastings said. “I also know everything in college hockey is written in pencil right now. I know Dryden has no concerns about repeating his great season for us as a junior. He’s very confident in himself as a goalie.’’
A tradition with Hastings in his nine Mavericks seasons is to have an August golf outing for coaches and the past senior class.
“It’s for the class that came in together — meaning Mackey will be invited, but not until 2021,’’ Hastings said. “I hope we can pull it off again this summer. It turns into a great storytelling session.’’
The Mavericks of 2020, a dedicated bunch that didn’t get their shot at postseason redemption, certainly deserve the camaraderie and laughs of that summer reunion.
“I hope it happens,’’ Hastings said. “The old coach always finds out way more about what went on than he knew.’’
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