For the past couple of months, Mike Hastings must’ve felt like the Boy Who Cried Wolf from the Aesop fable. As his Minnesota State Mavericks men’s hockey team would practice in preparation for a 2020-21 season that had no clear starting date because of the coronavirus pandemic – or even a guarantee it would be played at all – Hastings repeatedly assured his players that it’s coming. Honest. Believe me.
Finally on Wednesday, the WCHA announced its men’s schedule for the upcoming season. The Mavericks will begin play Nov. 20, play eight nonconference games against WCHA opponents, then play each conference opponent in one series for 18 league games.
“It’s nice to not have to convince the guys that I’m not full of it,’’ Hastings joked.
For Minnesota State, the tangible news of a schedule provided a shot of adrenaline during practice -- “There was a hop in their step, there was a lot more energy,’’ Hastings said – and it enabled the Mavericks to focus on a certain future after the NCAA shutdown on March 12 ended a promising season and denied a potential NCAA breakthrough for a team that rolled to a 31-5-2 record.
Though the Mavericks lose such standouts as All-America forward Marc Michaelis, standout leader Parker Tuomie and high-scoring defenseman Connor Mackey, they return goalie Dryden McKay, who led the nation in wins (30), goals-against average (1.31), save percentage (.942) and shutouts (10). Minnesota State, winner of three consecutive WCHA regular-season championships and four of the past five, is No. 4 in the U.S. College Hockey Online preseason poll.
“We tried to keep that carrot out in front of them as in, ‘Hey, guys, if you handle your business appropriately and control what we can control, hopefully we’ll continue to move the rock,’ ’’ Hastings said.
In the modified WCHA schedule that resulted from COVID-19 concerns, Minnesota State likely will receive its stiffest challenge right from the start. The Mavericks face rival and league-runner up Bemidji State four times in the season’s first two weeks. MSU travels to Bemidji for a Nov. 20-21 series, and the Beavers make the jaunt south for a Nov. 27-28 set. Though the four games won’t count in the conference standings, they will register highly on the intensity meter.
“It can be here, there or somewhere in between. It’s going to be a battle,’’ said Hastings, whose team won three of the five matchups against the Beavers last season. “… There’s a lot of history there.’’
An intriguing part of the college hockey season is how the three western conferences approached their scheduling. The Big Ten, home of daily antigen testing for COVID-19, chose to keep play all in-conference, plus adding Arizona State for 28 games, with the Sun Devils of the Pac-12 being able to match the Big Ten’s testing protocols. The Big Ten will start play Nov. 13, though it has yet to release a schedule only two weeks ahead of puck drop.
The NCHC opted to split into East and West Divisions and send its eight teams to a hub in Omaha beginning Dec. 1. Each team will play 10 games in the hub, completing all cross-division play, then return to campus site for the final 16 games of the season, all vs. division foes.
A victim of the pandemic this season will be nonconference play among Minnesota’s five Division I programs. With differing protocols in three conferences, they couldn’t make it work. It wasn’t, however, because of lack of effort from the tight coaching quintet.
“Whether it was Bob [Motzko] at Minnesota, Scott [Sandelin] at Duluth, Brett [Larson] at St. Cloud and Tommy [Serratore, Bemidji State] and myself, all the way up until that last decision was made, we were all trying to find a way to play each other,’’ Hastings said. “It just didn’t work out.’’
Hastings tries to make his nonconference schedule as difficult as possible. Last season, for example, his Mavericks went 3-0-1 against two-time defending national champion Minnesota Duluth and PairWise No. 1-rated North Dakota. He wanted to make sure this modified schedule would be as tough as possible, so he sought out Serratore, whose Beavers are ranked No. 16 in the USCHO poll.
“Tommy and I had talked, ‘Let’s get locked down to our first four games so we know we’re getting off to a challenging start,’ ’’ he said. “And we’ve done that.’’
The ongoing challenge for all teams and players is navigating a season while trying to avoid the COVID-19 episodes that have hit college football.
“I don’t believe there’s been a time where telling them that they’re responsible for their actions, both here and away, can decide if we’re going to continue on our path or hit pause, than there has been today,’’ Hastings said.