Hockey fans across Wisconsin hung their heads in absolute dejection as the Badgers' 2022-23 season ended with a first-round exit in the Big Ten Tournament.
But there was hope. With the hiring of renowned former Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings followed by some promising transfers, fans had cautious optimism that Badger hockey would return to its Jeff Sauer or even Bob Johnson glory days.
That was supposed to take a few years. Not a few games.
The 2023-24 team has come in and surpassed every expectation. They started the season unranked but jumped into the top 10 after sweeping the then-ranked No. 1 Minnesota Golden Gophers in late October.
Now, they’re in talks of contending for the Big Ten regular season championship and Big Ten Championship. The Badgers could even make a solid run for all the marbles at the NCAA tournament this April in St. Paul.
How does a team go from one of their most disappointing seasons in recent years to one of the most promising seasons in a single offseason?
The easiest answer is Mike Hastings. We’ve gotten good looks — although edited and filtered — inside the team with the ‘All-Access’ series on social media. In press conferences, Hastings’ coaching philosophy is clear. He’s changed the environment around this hockey program.
He’s prioritizing learning and making every game — be it a slam-dunk win or hard defeat — a learning experience, and he emphasizes returning to practice in the days after, ready to improve. He’s not afraid to admit that the players are on a learning journey and make errors. He embraces it. That goes a long way and allows players to be comfortable making mistakes and learning from them.
But Hastings is not out there donning a bucket and wheels and making plays for the team. You can have the best coaching staff in the country, but if they’re coaching mighty mites unlucky enough to find themselves at the college level, you won’t get far. Wisconsin’s guys are playing with grit and putting their bodies on the line twice a week, and they deserve every bit of attention for the team’s success, too.
Still, a good part of that comes from the coaching staff.
In the immortal words of legend Wayne Gretzky, “hockey is a unique sport in the sense that you need each and every guy helping each other and pulling in the same direction to be successful.”
He’s absolutely right. Every teammate, every coach and every player are integral to each other's success.
Teams are a unit and there’s no doubt that Hastings has been an incredible injection to this team. But give each and every coach and player their credit for the work they’ve put into getting the team. They’ve earned it.
I’m not sure there’s been an article I’ve written this season without McClellan taking center stage. And that’s for good reason. Before a particularly goal-heavy series against Michigan which knocked his numbers down a couple of pegs, he led the league in save percentage, goals-against average and total wins. The only reason he’s second in winning percentage is because the goaltender in front of him has played 10 games less than him.
Thanks in part to McClellan, the defense limited opponents to 1.88 goals per game, the best in the nation. Wisconsin allowed 3.50 goals per game a year ago, almost double this season’s number. They also led the NCAA in penalty-killing percentage at .917 for most of the season, falling to third at .879 after playing a series against the Michigan Wolverines.
But, as Hastings has emphasized, there are “peaks and valleys” for every hockey team. The offensive valleys are deep. They’re 37th nationwide in converting on power plays at .193. The good news is that Wisconsin’s most promising improvement came in the past few games. When the Badgers are clicking, they’re really clicking, They just need consistency.
Here’s the hard truth for some Badger fans. Instant success is great, and though they deserve every plaudit for their success to this point, it’s still entirely possible they will walk away from this season with nothing for the showcase. As the Badgers saw Friday in Michigan, hockey is merciless, and it’s not uncommon for top 10 teams to be extraordinarily humbled by the underdogs.
Still, the players and the entire coaching staff behind Hastings are doing everything in their power to ensure this team does the best they can in every game.
To answer the question: no, Hastings isn’t the secret sauce, he’s an ingredient. His success has been a large part of Wisconsin’s journey toward a season they can be proud of. But sauces only stand out when paired with a good burger, and Hastings’ success stands out because it’s come on top of growth and grit from players who’ve stuck with the Badgers through times good and hard.
The Bird’s Chirp is The Daily Cardinal’s hockey column. Ian Wilder is the Cardinal’s hockey beat writer for the Badger men’s hockey team. What role do you think Hastings plays in the team? Send all comments to email@example.com
Ian Wilder is a senior staff writer and current men’s hockey beat reporter for The Daily Cardinal. He’s a former state politics and features reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @IanWWilder.