How Wisconsin hockey became an instant national title contender under Mike Hastings

MADISON, Wis. — As the Wisconsin men’s hockey team skated off the ice after practice and trudged through the bowels of LaBahn Arena, energy permeated the line from front to back. But players were not talking about their 19-4-1 record, their No. 3 ranking or their national championship aspirations

No, they were talking about chocolate chip cookie ice cream bars.

First-year coach Mike Hastings informed players on the losing team of a 2-on-2 transition drill that they were required to deliver ice cream bars to the man lined up across the ice from them. If it did not occur in a timely fashion — and if the loser did not treat the winner properly — Hastings would find consequences. Upon delivery, the victors were responsible for expressing their gratitude by uttering a simple sentence: Thank you for competing against me.

“We all kind of laughed,” said Badgers senior forward Mathieu De St. Phalle, whose team won 14-8. “I thought it was funny because he made us all go down the line and say which guy had our ice cream bar. It was fun for us to be like, ‘You’ve got mine.’”

The exercise illustrated the successful approach Hastings has taken to turning around a Badgers team that went 13-23 last year. Wisconsin enters a two-game series at Michigan this weekend without a loss since Nov. 24. No team in the country has a better winning percentage.

The Badgers are two victories shy of their most in a decade and have a chance to win their first national championship in 18 years.

It didn’t happen overnight, as Hastings needed to incorporate 12 newcomers into a 26-player roster. But Hastings has mixed the right blend of competition, accountability and togetherness with a system that maximizes Wisconsin’s talent. It’s the idea, players say, of stressing “we over me.”

“He talks a lot about the ‘we’ piece,” forward David Silye said. “And we have it up in our locker room. He really messages that every day. He’s big on rewarding guys for their hard work. And I think that’s a big reason of, if you feel like you can get somewhere, then it’s going to motivate you to do your best.

“If you don’t think you can ever get in the lineup, then it’s pretty un-motivating to show up to the rink every day. I that that’s what in turn makes us such a great team because our guys that are scratched last game are second-line wingers the next game. It’s a good culture that way where we push each other.”

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Wisconsin is ranked No. 3, behind only Boston U. and Boston College. (Dan Sanger / UW Athletics)

Finding that combination has been one of the 57-year-old Hastings’ calling cards in a 25-year head coaching career in which he’s never had a losing season. He spent 14 seasons in charge of the Omaha Lancers in the USHL, from 1994-2008, and left as the league’s all-time winningest coach with a record of 529-210-56. He won three championships, was named general manager of the year five times and was twice named coach of the year. His worst record in a season was 35-21.

Hastings spent one season as an assistant coach at Minnesota and three seasons as an assistant at Nebraska-Omaha before taking over his own college program at Minnesota State. In 11 seasons, he went 299-109-25 and won the Spencer Penrose Award as the top coach in Division I men’s hockey three times. Minnesota State had won 20 games in a season twice in its first 16 years of Division I play; it then did so every season Hastings was there.

Those credentials intrigued Wisconsin athletic director Chris McIntosh, who fired Tony Granato last March following a seven-year run with a 105-129-16 record and just one NCAA Tournament appearance. Hastings said McIntosh drove to his house near Mankato, Minn., for a conversation about the job. Hastings liked the message McIntosh delivered about what the Wisconsin experience meant, how it influenced McIntosh in his career after he played football for the Badgers and why developing quality people was as important as developing a championship-level team.

Hastings already held a great affinity for Wisconsin hockey from afar. He remembered watching one of Wisconsin’s NCAA Tournament games in high school at the old Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D. — the Badgers won one of their six program national titles there in 1983 when Hastings was 17. His uncle was a beer distributor, so they got an extra kick out of listening to the band play the Budweiser theme song and replace it with, “When you say Wisconsin, you’ve said it all.”

Hastings was familiar with the legacy of former Wisconsin coach Bob Johnson, who won three national championships. He was a defenseman at St. Cloud State, where future Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves was his assistant coach for a year. Hastings later coached on a world junior hockey team with Jeff Sauer. Sauer won two national titles as Wisconsin’s coach and Eaves one.

“I’d watched Wisconsin be at the top of the food chain,” Hastings said. “My idea about Wisconsin was that I think it’s one of the best — if not the best — college hockey jobs in the country.”

When Hastings asked his wife for her thoughts on the Wisconsin opening and learned she was all-in on the change — their daughter was living in nearby McFarland at the time, which didn’t hurt — they accepted the job and made the move to Madison. Hastings earned a $700,000 annual salary, an increase from the $435,000 he made at Minnesota State.

Although Hastings has helped Wisconsin make tremendous progress in the 10 months since his hiring, he is the first person to deflect credit and place it on the players. He noted there already was returning talent on the roster. Sophomore forward Cruz Lucius leads the team with 22 points. De St. Phalle (20 points), Ben Dexheimer (19 points) and Owen Lindmark (18 points) rank among the top five in points and all were part of the team last season. Forward Carson Bantle and defenseman Mike Vorlicky, a captain, are among the returners whom Hastings said have also been key.

Hastings credited the performance of goaltender Kyle McClellan, as well. McClellan is allowing a national-best 1.67 goals against and has a .939 save percentage with six shutouts. Wisconsin’s team goals-against average has decreased from 3.38 last season to 1.59, while its scoring average has increased from 2.6 goals per game to 3.6.

Wisconsin has merged its returning personnel with a host of newcomers. Three players followed Hastings from Minnesota State: Silye, Christian Fitzgerald and Simon Tassy. Tassy is tied for third on the team in points (19), Silye is tied for fifth (18) and Fitzgerald is seventh (15).

Players say Hastings has preached accountability. His mantra is to “stay on the dailies.” That means controlling what each player can control within a 24-hour window — effort, attitude, sleep, diet, hydration, avoiding distractions — which has helped the Badgers stay in the moment rather than being overwhelmed by their success.

“Quite honestly, I had no idea what to expect,” Silye said. “The only thing I knew is that Wisconsin’s a very talented team and that coach Hastings has never had a sub-.500 season. I think you put those two together, it’s a pretty good recipe for success.”

Hastings has regular individual meetings with players. He scheduled a series of 15-minute meetings with each player last week when there wasn’t a game. He wants to better get to know them while learning what’s working and what isn’t. Players say Hastings helping them understand the why behind what they’re doing has led to more consistent results. Vorlicky said Hastings’ speeches “can kind of get you to run through a wall.”

Silye remembered a practice during his sophomore year at Minnesota State in which he passed on an open shot attempt during a 2-on-0 one-timer drill to dish to a teammate. Hastings blew the drill dead and asked Silye how many goals he had scored that season. The answer, at the time, was two.

Hastings not only encouraged Silye to shoot the puck, but, after Silye scored later in practice against Hobey Baker Award-winning goaltender Dryden McKay, he stopped the drill and congratulated Silye in front of the team. Silye finished that season with eight goals before scoring 23 last season to earn team MVP honors.

“It was that moment that gave me the belief in myself that he sees something,” Silye said. “That was kind of a pivotal moment.”

Hastings said he coaches a style on the ice that he hated to play against as a player. That means not giving opponents any space by being physical, playing with discipline and being so tenacious that the other team feels Wisconsin’s presence well past the final whistle. Hastings stresses the importance of defending as a group of five so the team can push forward offensively as a group of five, thereby challenging the opponent’s wings to defend on the other end and creating pressure.

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Mathieu De St. Phalle (left) leads the Badgers with 13 goals. (Tom Lynn / UW Athletics)

De St. Phalle said the changes in how Hastings runs workouts or practices have been noticeable. But returning players were eager to embrace those new methods following consecutive subpar seasons in which Wisconsin finished a combined 23-47-3.

“Just the attitude we came into this year with after the way the last two seasons have gone, we have a big chip on our shoulder,” De St. Phalle said. “We want to pay back all these teams that have gotten the best of us. It’s just that combined with a fresh feeling of we can kind of accomplish whatever we want to accomplish.”

All of it has worked so far, even if Hastings isn’t about to bask in the glow of early-season success. He noted there are 12 Big Ten games remaining, and the Badgers aren’t in first place. Wisconsin is four points behind No. 8 Michigan State, which swept the Badgers in East Lansing in November. He also said his team is only as good as its last game — a 3-3 tie against Lindenwood that left much to be desired.

Hastings said he is appreciative of the excitement Wisconsin’s success has generated but added that “there’s a time to reflect, but it sure the heck isn’t right now.” That means the Badgers will continue to stay on their dailies in a quest to reach an even higher level.

“I think this group, there’s special talent there,” Vorlicky said. “When we play as a unit, we’re pretty hard to play against. The sky’s the limit for us.”

(Top photo: David Stluka / UW Athletics)

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