Hastings making tough decisions in his turn as Team USA coach
After 2 turns as an assistant for Team USA, Crookston native Mike Hastings is taking time away from his Minnesota State Mankato head coaching duties to lead the Americans at the 2019 World Junior Championships in Canada.
There’s a palpable buzz about hockey in the Seattle area these days, with the NHL announcing that it’s coming to town with an expansion team less than three years from now.
With hockey’s 2019 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship set to be played just across the border at various rinks in British Columbia, starting the day after Christmas, Team USA set up training camp in Everett, Wash., last week, with a familiar name at the helm.
Originally from Crookston, Minn., Mike Hastings has been the head coach at Minnesota State Mankato since 2012, and is about to take on his biggest international hockey challenge, as head coach of the American team. Team USA will be seeking a record fourth consecutive medal.
In that effort, Hastings gets to choose from the best American players age 20-and-under – a task as daunting as it is exciting.
“On Day 1, we told the players that each of them earned the right to be here. This is now their opportunity to show us why they need to be on this team. Give us a reason that we absolutely have to have you on this roster,” said Hastings, in advance of the final cuts Sunday. “And so far, we’ve had a lot of good efforts, they’re making it pretty tough on us. That’s what you want to have – you want to have tough decisions and as hard as that may be, I know our staff couldn’t be happier to be in this situation.”
In 2005 when Grand Forks, N.D., and Thief River Falls, Minn., hosted the tournament, Hastings was an assistant coach for Scott Sandelin, who led the Americans to a fourth-place finish. This year the roles are reversed, with Sandelin, the Minnesota Duluth head coach, serving as one of three assistants for Hastings.
It’s a unique relationship as they compete for recruits and compete on the ice, like in the opening round of the NCAA tournament last season when Sandelin’s Bulldogs rallied to beat Hastings’ Mavericks in overtime. But away from the rink, they’re friends, to the point that Sandelin’s son Ryan will play for Hastings in Mankato next season.
Adding a layer to their friendly rivalry is the fact that on Friday, while they are in Victoria, B.C., prepping Team USA to face Kazakhstan in a preliminary round game, the Bulldogs and Mavericks will be in Glendale, Ariz., facing each other in the opening game of the Desert Hockey Classic holiday tournament.
“When our two teams play, I can see us watching it together an arm’s length away because I know we’ll give it the proverbial little grin or congrats to whoever wins, but then we’re going to try to make sure we don’t call our staffs and give it to them for not getting it done or congratulations for getting it done,” Hastings said, noting that both teams were ranked in the top eight in the most recent national polls. “I think both teams are good.
"It’ll be a great battle and that tournament in Arizona’s a great tournament, too. It’ll be an important weekend and it’ll be fun sharing that experience with Scott here while we’re trying to chase a championship here at the World Juniors.”
Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko was behind the bench for the Americans the last two seasons, when they won gold in Canada in 2017 and bronze in Buffalo, N.Y., a year ago.
With the tournament in Canada, the Americans will be the hated enemy of the locals no matter who they play. That game against Kazakhstan, for example, will be played in a 7,000-seat arena, and there will no doubt be 4,000 Canadians on hand, cheering in full throat for the Kazakhs.
“In the grand scheme of things, it’s special to go into an arena or a game and know the fans have it out for you,” said Hastings, who has led the Mavericks to three WCHA titles and to the NCAA tournament four times in his six seasons on the job, but has yet to win a NCAA tournament game. “You want to be that much better, that much sharper and you have this hunger and I think in looking at our players and speaking with them that they’re excited.”
The Americans got their first taste of on-ice action in the Vancouver suburb of Langley, B.C., on Thursday when Jack Hughes, the presumptive no. 1 overall pick in next summer’s NHL draft, scored in the final minute of regulation to defeat Russia 3-2 in an exhibition game.
After a second exhibition game, a final round of cuts, and a Christmas spent on an island in Canada, the Americans open tournament play on Wednesday versus Slovakia in Victoria. Team USA faces Sweden and Finland in the preliminary round, but is in a different group than both Russia and Canada, and would not faces either of those two perennial powers until the medal round.
NHL Network is slated to televise all of Team USA’s games.