BOSTON - The town of Sheldon, Iowa, and the large metropolis of Boston are 1,500 miles and worlds apart, but come Saturday night, a meeting at a Pizza Ranch that happened in the small burg 10 years ago could play a huge role in who is crowned the 2022 NCAA men's hockey champion.
Kevin Buisman, the athletic director at Minnesota State Mankato, was looking for a hockey coach in 2012. After two consecutive 11th-place finishes in the WCHA, the Mavericks parted ways with Troy Jutting, and Buisman had Nebraska Omaha assistant Mike Hastings on his radar.
Rather than risk Hastings being seen by prying eyes in Mankato during the interview process, Buisman arranged to meet Hastings somewhere in the middle between Mankato and Omaha. So, there they were, the coach delivering his vision for the Mavericks to the AD between slices of the Stampede and the Roundup.
"I thought [the meeting] maybe would be an hour, an hour and a half,'' Buisman said Friday. "We saw several shift changes. We talked about four hours about his vision and what it could become.''
What the program has become will be on display Saturday night at TD Garden when Minnesota State (38-5) meets Denver (30-9-1) for the national championship. A victory would enable the Mavericks to join the select Minnesota club of NCAA titlists, which includes the Gophers (five titles) and Minnesota Duluth (three), and put a feather in the cap for southern Minnesota hockey.
"It's been a build over time, and we just keep climbing the mountain,'' Buisman said. "There's one more step to take.''
The Mavericks took a huge step Thursday, beating the Gophers 5-1 to the delight of the purple-clad fans who reveled to the "Ole-Ole-Ole'' song that plays after Minnesota State scores a goal. Led by a tenacious forecheck and the standout goaltending of Dryden McKay, the Mavericks overcame a 1-0 deficit to end Minnesota's season for the second consecutive year.
"It's kind of a cherry on top to beat them,'' said McKay, who won the Hobey Baker Award as the nation's top player on Friday. "It didn't really matter who we were playing tonight. We played the way we wanted to play. We're confident any time we do that. Doesn't matter who's on the other side, we're going to come out on top."
In large part, McKay makes sure of that. The senior from Downers Grove, Ill., is 38-4 this season — an NCAA single-season record for wins — with a 1.27 goals-against average and .934 save percentage. He also has 10 shutouts, running his NCAA career record total to 34.
Building brick by brick
Under Hastings, the Mavericks quickly had success while methodically building the program's foundation, reaching the NCAA tournament in the coach's first three seasons before taking off over the past five years. They've had 29 or more wins four times in the past five seasons, and in that COVID-19-shortened 2019-20 season, they went 22-5-1. Minnesota State's 125 wins since 2017-18 are the most in the country.
NCAA tournament success was elusive until the Mavericks beat Quinnipiac in overtime last year in Loveland, Colo., and followed it up with a 4-0 blanking of the Gophers. They fell 5-4 to St. Cloud State in a semifinal thriller in Pittsburgh.
"When I sat down with Kevin Buisman and our administration at the beginning, we were going to try to build something that was sustainable, that we could try to continue to build on year in and year out,'' Hastings said.
The program-building got a big assist from Minnesota State administration.
"President [Richard] Davenport had seen what a successful hockey program can do for the institution,'' Buisman said of the former school president. "I knew he was willing to invest in it. I just kept committing to Mike, 'Yep, yep, yep.' ''
Finding their home
The renovation and expansion of the Mayo System Healthcare Events Center in downtown Mankato that started in 2015 enabled the Mavericks to move their headquarters out of All-Seasons Arena, a place that coaches and administrators would avoid showing to recruits. Now, the Mayo Center is a place the program is proud of and that Mankato fans have embraced. The Mavericks' average home attendance this season was 4,662, or 96.5% of capacity.
On the ice, the Mavericks don't thrive with a roster full of NHL prospects, rather Hastings sprinkles in such standouts as Olympian Nathan Smith of Hudson, Fla., Julian Napravnik of Bad Nauheim, Germany, and Ondrej Pavel of Prague, Czechia, with players who've had two or three years in the junior leagues. The Mavericks have two NHL draft picks on this team, while the Gophers (14), Michigan (13) and Denver (12) relied heavily on draftees. According to College Hockey Inc., Minnesota State had the oldest team in the Frozen Four at an average of 22.9 years, while the Gophers were the youngest at 21.6.
On Saturday, Hastings and his players will try to complete the vision that the coach sold to his future boss at the Pizza Ranch.
"It would just bring everything to fruition. Mike's a little understated in terms of the visionary that he was, saying a championship is possible,'' Buisman said. "… We were seeing what small colleges could do on the biggest stage, and we said, 'Why not us? Why not us?'"