MANKATO – Augustana University in Sioux Falls officially announced this week that it plans to start Division I men's hockey program and have a team on the ice for the 2023-24 season.
There are a couple reasons for this: One, the success of the Sioux Falls Stampede as an attendance leader in the junior United States Hockey League. Two, T. Denny Sanford's generosity, which will help with the construction of a new arena named Midco.
And there also could be a minor reason: Augustana officials were able to look a mere 155 miles east and north and discover that D-I hockey success is available even on the prairie.
The role models are the Mavericks of Minnesota State Mankato. On Friday night, the Mavericks and St. Cloud State were playing for an unlimited crowd (4,555 was the announced) for the first time since the pandemic shutdown on March 12, 2020.
The Mavericks were rated No. 1 and the Huskies were No. 2, and it stayed that way with a 1-0 victory for the home team.
Dryden McKay, back for his senior season, recorded his 26th career shutout. That tied the all-time Division I record with Michigan State's Ryan Miller.
The final couple of minutes were a scramble, but before that Minnesota State had the Huskies struggling to get to 15 shots. It wasn't quite as impressive as the Mavericks' 4-0 suffocation of the Gophers in the NCAA quarterfinals last spring, but it was relentless defense.
Maybe that's prairie-style hockey for Augustana to attempt to copy.
"I saw that Augustana is going to get a new arena," said Mike Hastings, Minnesota State's coach, on Friday afternoon. "The arena that the Stampede plays in is beautiful, and Augustana is getting its own. That guy down there [Sanford] is a great one to have with you."
The tasks remaining for Augustana will be establishing a semblance of a track record, and finding the leader.
That has been Hastings in Mankato. He came to Mankato in 2012 with a school promise that new locker rooms and offices would be added to the downtown area opened in the mid-'90s. It took three years and considerable fundraising to get that done.
Troy Jutting, Hastings' predecessor, was in the program for 23 years as an assistant or head coach. Late in his tenure, Jutting told me that he never had been able to land a player offered a Gophers' scholarship.
The Gophers and college hockey's half-dozen blue bloods are still going to be teams with high numbers of NHL draft choices, but Hastings has been able to pull off a work-around by getting players from many corners of junior hockey.
Bob Motzko, now enjoying the Gophers' recruiting advantage, also pulled it off when turning St. Cloud State into a power.
Friday's one-goal defensive struggle bore little resemblance to the teams' epic national semifinal — 5-4, Huskies — last April in Pittsburgh.
"I thought that game in the Frozen Four was a fantastic hockey game," Hastings said. "It was an up-and-down night, on the ice and with everyone's emotions. We were down, then up, and they figured out a way to get a win."
Minnesota State did the figuring out Friday, as McKay and St. Cloud State goalie David Hrenak were outstanding.
Hastings had played his college hockey at St. Cloud State, when Mankato State was a Division II rival. Today, the Huskies are in the rugged eight-team NCHC, and the Mavericks are in the first season in the newly constituted, eight-team CCHA.
"The footprint is smaller, and there are fewer conference games," Hastings said. "That gives us a chance to play more non-conference series — like this one with the Huskies, with UMD, like the one we had last weekend at Massachusetts."
UMass won the Frozen Four as the only non-Minnesota team, beating UMD in the semis and then St. Cloud in the final. The Mavericks got 'em twice in Amherst, Mass. last weekend, with crowds approaching 9,000 cheering against them.
The crowd was half that on Friday, but it was good to see almost a full house. Back in March 2020, the Mavericks were 31-5-2 and absolutely loaded when the pandemic stopped the season in the middle of the conference tournament.
"I think about that once in a while," Hastings said.
Not as often after the Mavericks won their first two NCAA D-I tournament games in 2021, reached the Frozen Four and carry enough respect as the prairie hockey power to be rated No. 1.