Brett Stern said he didn’t know any better as a freshman at Minnesota State University-Mankato and a newcomer to the Mavericks hockey team.
Minnesota State had been through four straight losing seasons and eight in nine seasons. Mike Hastings took over as the coach of the men’s hockey program for Stern’s sophomore season in 2012-13 and asked his new team about its goals. Stern remembers wanting to be .500, maybe near the top of the WCHA standings and, of course, to beat the University of Minnesota.
Hastings didn’t think much of those goals.
"He was kind of like, ‘Come on, you guys have got to dream big here,’" Stern recalled this week. "’Those goals are definitely reachable. We’ve got to find something that’s on the breaking point of impossible.’"
What Stern and his teammates once thought were impossible aren’t any longer.
For the first time in school history, the Mavericks are the top-ranked team in the nation — marking the second straight week — heading into this weekend’s North Star College Cup at the Xcel Energy Center. No longer the team looking up at the Gophers, Minnesota State (18-4-1 overall, 15-2-1 WCHA) opens the tournament against Minnesota on Friday night.
The Mavericks have won eight straight games and are 13-1-1 in their last 15 games heading into the weekend. A Division I hockey program, Minnesota State is averaging the third-most goals scored in the nation (3.74 per game) and are tied for eighth in fewest goals allowed at 2.09 per game.
Stern, now a senior captain, and his teammates credit Hastings for the turnaround, which started as soon as he became coach.
"I guess the way he came in and he kind of grabbed ahold of the program, gave us a shake and said, ‘It’s time to wake up. We’ve got talent. We’ve got skill. We’ve got a lot of key ingredients that teams want, and we can really do something special. We’ve just got to believe,’" Stern said. "And I think we haven’t really looked back since that."
Hastings had a successful track record in college and junior hockey, and coached the U.S. national junior team twice.
After a 14-year run with Omaha in the United States Hockey League, he left the USHL as the league’s all-time winningest coach (529-210-56), never having a losing season and winning three Clark Cup titles as the USHL playoff champions. He spent one season with the Gophers as an assistant to Don Lucia before leaving to be the associate head coach for three years at Nebraska-Omaha. Then the Mavericks tabbed him to return to the state.
Hastings has been expecting more out of his team from the very beginning.
In his first season as coach, Minnesota State was swept in a home series against Denver and was 3-5-2. The players tried to find the positive in playing well against a strong Denver Pioneers team. Hastings wasn’t in the mood for moral victories.
"Hasty came into the locker room and he told us flat-out how bad we played, how we didn’t believe in each other, we didn’t have each other and hold each other accountable," Stern recalled.
Refocused, the Mavericks came back to sweep a road series at Wisconsin.
"He came in after that Saturday night game and was like, ‘that’s what winning feels like," Stern said. "’You guys put in the work all week long, you believed in each other, yourself and me as a head coach.’ And he’s like, ‘that’s the way things are going to be around here.’"
They would win seven straight games on the way to just the third 20-win season in school history, setting a record for wins in a season and qualifying for the NCAA tournament. Last season, Minnesota State improved again, reaching 20 wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history, eclipsing the win record from the previous season, winning the WCHA Final Five and going to the NCAA tournament again.
A year later, they are the No. 1 team in the nation.
"Kind of nice to put southern Minnesota on the map, and we take a lot of pride in that," senior defenseman Zach Palmquist said. "We just can’t let this mess with our minds too much. We’ve just got to take it day by day and realize there’s teams behind us that are gunning for us and that we need to be on top of our game every night of the weekend."
Hastings, of course, credits his players for the development of the program.
Senior defenseman Zach Palmquist has six goals and 13 assists this season.
"I was fortunate my first year I walked into a situation that had some very good hockey players within the program," Hastings said.
Stern (from Lino Lakes, Minn.) and Palmquist (South St. Paul) are senior leaders for the defense. Palmquist adds offense, contributing six goals and 13 assists. The leading scorer, forward Matt Leitner, is also a senior. Leitner’s 24 points (five goals, 19 assists) are part of a balanced scoring attack with only two players in double-figures in goals scored but nine players with at least five goals this season.
Junior forward Bryce Gervais leads the team with 13 goals. Senior goaltender Stephon Williams is 14-2-1 with a 1.71 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage.
"I believe we can match up our four lines against any line in the country," Palmquist said. "To be able to roll through four lines is huge during a game, getting guys the right amount of rest and being able to go out there and perform to your best abilities, and playing six defensemen also is huge. I think sometimes we can wear teams down that way."
Williams is one of five players on the Mavericks’ roster who has been drafted by an NHL team, a school record for one season. Williams (from Fairbanks, Alaska) was a fourth-round draft pick by the New York Islanders in the 2013 draft.
Sophomore forward Zach Stepan (Faribault, Minn.) belongs to the Nashville Predators organization. Teddy Blueger, a sophomore forward from Latvia, was a second-round draft pick by Pittsburgh in 2012. Junior forward Max Gaede (Woodbury, Minn.) was a third-round pick in 2011 by San Jose, and freshman forward C.J. Franklin (Forest Lake, Minn.) was a fifth-round draft pick by Winnipeg last year.
A mix of upperclassmen combined with Hastings’ new recruits, continues the growth of a program that, in three years, has gone from the dregs of the WCHA to the top of the nation.
"We’re prideful of what we’ve got down here in the southern part of the state and we think we’ve got something that’s definitely sellable," Hastings said of recruiting to Minnesota State.
A No. 1 ranking, at least for now, is another selling point for Hastings and the Mavericks. They’ll enter the weekend with bragging rights, but know they have to work to keep them.
"I think you take it for what it is and you’re appreciative of it," Hastings said. "For it being the first time that we’ve ever done it as a program, I think you get a little bit reflective. Alumni that had been here before, guys like Don Brose, Troy Jutting, it’s been part of our development and we’re appreciative of it. We want to thank the people that have been here before to get it to this point. Give it its time and then just move on."
Just as he pushed his new team to move on from its previous losing ways when he first was hired.