When Tony Granato returned home in 2016 to reinvigorate the Wisconsin Men’s Hockey program, most considered the move to be ushering in a bold new era for the Cardinal and White. A heralded, well-liked Badger alum with an impressive track record of coaching success, the fit seemed almost preordained and many believed that it was a home run hire.
Fast forward seven years to March 6, 2023, and Granato was being unceremoniously fired from something he’d called his dream job. Given how bright, loyal, and charming he is, Granato’s downfall was as sad as it was surprising. He’s an easy guy to root for, so it was difficult not to feel for the man who seemed as shocked as the rest of us that his tenure as Wisconsin’s coach didn’t work out as planned, leaving after seven seasons with just a 105-129-15 (.452) overall record and a lone NCAA Tournament berth in 2021.
AD Chris McIntosh knew how important it would be to nail the next Badger Hockey hire, not only to stop a too-long string of subpar seasons that started late in the Mike Eaves era, but to try and close the gap with Mark Johnson’s incomparable Badger women’s program.
So McIntosh worked quickly but thoughtfully on finding the right guy, and on March 30th, he had his man—Minnesota State head man Mike Hastings, similar to football head coach Luke Fickell in the sense that he had found significant recent success at a smaller school with fewer resources than the big boys. Most heralded the move as a bold stroke that was bringing in a proven winner—including back-to-back Frozen Fours in 2021 and 2022, as well as a keen ability to beat Big Ten bully Minnesota—but, albeit in a different context, Granato was similarly well-received, so the proof would be in the pudding.
After a winning opening presser and the requisite gladhanding required of all new coaches, Hasting went to work on the three-headed monster of retaining current players, holding on to recruits, and working the transfer portal. And as the season approached early this fall, it was already clear that Hastings had passed these early tests, bringing back a roster full of experience with a few key transfers sprinkled in, while also keeping most of Granato’s recruits in the fold.
But, as we saw with Luke Fickell’s 2023 team, winning the offseason and having a bevy of pundits lauding the quality of a hire guarantees absolutely nothing in year one. So when the Badger hit the ice for an October home series with lightly regarded Augustana in early October, more than a few Badger fans (and perhaps also an A.D.) were holding their collective breath. A comfortable sweep that weekend set the tone for an incredibly impressive early season stretch for the Badgers while skating through an absolute gauntlet of talented opponents.
This run culminated with road sweeps of a ranked Michigan Tech team, then No. 1 Minnesota, followed by a thrilling home sweep of No. 4 (and NHL Draft pick factory) Michigan. That impressive and unexpected stretch left the Badgers with an improbable No. 1 ranking roughly 1/3 of the way through Hastings’ first season, jolting the college hockey world and wowing Badger fans. Several people even claimed Hastings was having the early success expected of Fickell (this was, of course, a bit unfair given the many differences between their sports and situations).
After a bye weekend, getting swept Michigan State in East Lansing and a surprising home split with lightly-regarded Alaska Anchorage took a bit of the momentum from the runaway Badger train. But, after bounce-back sweeps of Ohio State and No. 18 Penn State, the Badgers approach mid-December one point back of the first-place Spartans and seven points clear of third-place Minnesota in the Big Ten (14-4, 8-2), with a lofty No. 6 national ranking and one of the highest strengths of schedule in college hockey, which will help the team down the road when NCAA bids come out.
In addition, fan enthusiasm, best measured by home attendance at the Kohl Center, is humming along nicely after two seasons of playing to half-full, beaten down crowds who were forced to rely on improbable upsets to fill the gaps where consistent winning should be.
So, while a bit unexpected this soon, nothing the Badgers have accomplished so far feels fluky. They’ve played a strong, physical, and (on most nights) disciplined hockey that appears to have a full-buy in from a number of guys, and this team is loaded with both talent and grit: Cruz Lucius, Owen Lindmark, Mathieu De St. Phalle, and defenseman Ben Dexheimer are all flirting with being point-per-game scorers.
Moreover, a second wave of talented forwards gives the Badgers a number of options to fill its lines, including Christan Fitzgerald, Minnesota State transfer Simon Tassey, and David Silye, amongst others. This is a deep and skilled squad that seems to really respond to each other and their new coach, Mike Hastings.
The key for any new hockey head man is to get respect and buy-in from his team, and Hastings’ players leave no doubt about where the coach stands in this regard.
“The speeches he gives in our locker room (and) the one liners are crazy. It makes you want to run through a wall for the guy” said sophomore forward Jack Horbach. Graduate senior and Florida Panthers draft pick Owen Lindmark added that, while Hastings has a calm and personable demeanor with the media, “when it’s time to turn it on, he’ll raise his voice and everyone’s ears will perk up and he’ll get the attention instantly.”
Both players seem to both deeply respect and genuinely like Hastings, which is an ideal place to have a team as the halfway mark approaches in the coach’s first season with Wisconsin.
Nobody knows how the Badgers’ season will end up, but the early returns suggest Hastings has the ‘23-24 Badgers, and the long-term prospects for the program, pointing straight up.