If you asked anyone outside of Minnesota who the Mavericks were, few would know whom you were talking about and less could probably point them out on the map. At the time, the hot items in Minnesota college hockey were the Gophers, Bulldogs or Huskies.
Minnesota State was spinning its wheels in the old WCHA, a conference that featured more storied programs such as Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota and Wisconsin -- to name a few. On recruiting grounds, MSU struggled to compete, and that transitioned to the ice.
In that 2011-12 season, Brett Stern and Zach Palmquist were freshmen. At the time, if you had told either of them they would be considered one of the best teams in the nation during their senior campaign, they would have said you were crazy. Yet here they are, and both of them credit the turnaround to their coach, Crookston native Mike Hastings, who was hired in April 2012.
In his first season at the helm, Hastings led the team to a 24-14-3 record and a trip to the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Now, in the middle of his third season, on Jan. 12, the Mavericks were ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time in program history — and for two weeks in a row.
“The guys coming in are learning the Maverick way,” said Stern, one of the team’s captains and a former Centennial standout. “The older guys on the team take the young guys under their wings and teach them the ways and how things are going to be done around here. That’s one of the biggest things about being on this team — things are going to be done right.
"He does ask a lot of us, but he also treats us unbelievably. He treats us like men. If we give him everything we have, he’s going to give us back everything he has. When he came in, he got to us right away, what his philosophy is, how he’s going to run things. It was a little bit slow to catch onto at the beginning, but once some of the older guys and leaders did, it just spread like a wildfire. He’s done a great job.”
Palmquist echoed Stern’s sentiment, noting that Hastings pushes the team every day to compete and be the best humans they can be.
Though the players credit Hastings, the coach, in turn, credits the program’s success to the players’ work ethic, on and off the ice. That includes the classroom. Hastings strives to help his players find a balance between athletics, academics and the ever-important social life of a college student.
“The guys have done a lot of work,” the bench boss said. “The players, who do all the heavy lifting, have done a good job of being responsible and putting in the effort and doing all the hard work so we can continue to get better. From that standpoint you want to come in and make sure that you’re giving your best effort so you can expect the people around you to do the same.”
While deciding who gets credit for the Mavericks’ upswing is akin to splitting hairs, the success itself has already started to have a major impact within the community and for MSU’s national profile.
At Minnesota State’s home opener against Minnesota-Duluth on Oct. 18, the Mavericks set an attendance record as more than 5,300 took in the game — well over a sellout.
Beyond game nights, Stern noted a rising level of recognition within the community. Out running errands, the captain has had fans come up to him simply to talk about the team and its prospects.
“It’s been awesome,” Stern said. “From top to bottom the support we’ve had throughout the community and the neighboring cities and areas has been unbelievable. It’s definitely growing on a lot of people. People are starting to pick up on Maverick hockey and give it a chance that it’s the real deal.”
The recognition has extended beyond Minnesota. As Minnesota State made appearances in the NCAA Tournament in both 2013 and 2014, its national profile is gaining serious traction. The Mavericks are on the map.
The energy within and around the program is buzzing like a livewire. That success has put a target on their back.
“It feels amazing,” said Palmquist, a South St. Paul product. “This program has never been this successful before. To get the program where it is and to say that I was part of it — you have to thank the alumni for all the hard work they put into this program also — it’s pretty special. I know the guys in the locker room know it’s pretty special. Like I said before, we just have to continue to work hard and show that we are that kind of team.
“We can’t get ahead of ourselves. We just have to keep doing what’s gotten us this far into the season already. I think if we just stick to our roots and remember every day it’s not going to get any easier just because we’re the No. 1 team in the country. It’s only going to get harder.”