Mike Hastings grew up in Crookston, Minn., and his fond hockey memories centered on Christmas break, when his mother would drive neighborhood kids to Central Park and drop them off for a day on an outdoor rink.
"She'd leave us there at 9 or 10 in the morning, bring us some vittles around noon and leave us there until they came back and picked us up at 6 o'clock,'' Hastings said. "It was an opportunity to play outside and experience hockey with the big boys — high school guys and college guys — and just learn to play the game, no coaching.''
Fast forward 40-some years later, and outdoor hockey will be front and center again for Hastings, coach of the Minnesota State Mankato men's team. His Mavericks, ranked No. 2 in the two major national polls, will be the outdoor headliner on Saturday as Hockey Day Minnesota visits Mankato. The Mavericks will take on Division I newcomer St. Thomas at 4:30 p.m. on the outdoor ice sheet at Blakeslee Stadium, the school's football home.
The Mavericks-Tommies matchup will be one of three televised on Saturday by Bally's Sports North from Blakeslee before the 15th installment of Hockey Day Minnesota concludes at 8 p.m. with the Wild playing host to the Chicago Blackhawks at Xcel Energy Center. The Andover and Edina girls' teams will play at 9:30 a.m., followed by the East Grand Forks and Prior Lake boys at 1 p.m.
Mankato originally was scheduled to be Hockey Day Minnesota's host in 2021, but last year's event was scuttled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Local organizers have made it a celebration of Southern Minnesota hockey, with the event visiting a locale south of Interstate Hwy. 494 for the first time.
From youth hockey to area high schools, the Blakeslee sheet has been in use since Sunday. Wednesday was "Hockey for Her'' day, with a schedule of girls' games capped by Mankato East's 5-0 win over Mankato West. On Friday, the East and West boys' teams meet at 5:30 p.m. Sunday will feature the Minnesota State Mankato and St. Thomas women's teams at 1:30 p.m.
As Southern Minnesota takes center stage, so will Hastings' Mavericks. Minnesota State Mankato improved to 22-5 with a 5-1 win over St. Thomas (2-23) on Thursday in Mendota Heights and has been ranked No. 1 in seven of U.S. College Hockey Online's 15 weekly polls this season. The Mavericks, coming off their first NCAA Frozen Four berth last year, boast two of the nation's best players in goalie Dryden McKay and center Nathan Smith.
McKay (22-4 with a goals-against average just under 1.25 after he beat the Tommies) has eight shutouts this season and an NCAA-record 32 for his career, six more than Ryan Miller, the 2001 Hobey Baker Award winner for Michigan State. Smith leads the nation with 37 points on 14 goals and 23 assists. He'll play for Team USA in the Winter Olympics in Beijing.
"The great thing about both of them is they're not really satisfied individuals,'' said Hastings, who'll also be in Beijing as a U.S. assistant coach along with St. Cloud State coach Brett Larson.
Gophers coach Bob Motzko saw the impact of Hockey Day Minnesota in 2018 when he was coaching St. Cloud State.
"To be part of it in St. Cloud was really cool for the community,'' said Motzko, an Austin, Minn., native who once was recruited by legendary Mavericks coach Don Brose. "I'm sure Mankato is going to do a bang-up job on it. It's got great meaning in our state. It's a day that's taken over in our state for celebrating our sport.''
Hastings raved about how the greater Mankato community has supported Hockey Day Minnesota, including volunteers who cleared Blakeslee Field after a recent 9-inch snowfall.
"The work of the local organizing committee, the Minnesota Wild, Bally's Sports North — everybody's getting together and putting their arms around the southern part of Minnesota to show what we're all about,'' he said.