ST. CLOUD, Minn. — It happened with enough regularity that, in my memory, it will have happened at every practice.
I started covering St. Cloud State men's hockey in 2010. I typically go to practices on Tuesdays and when I do, I go to the Huskies' bench and watch with the team's other off-ice staff members.
After I'd been there for about 10-15 minutes, Mike Gibbons would skate over and say, "How are we doin'? Got any scoops?'"
The funny thing would be, the few times I thought I knew something about an opponent or something going on, Gibbons would typically say, "Yeah, I heard that."
Depending on the drill going on, Gibbons and I would then have a short conversation. After practices the last few years, there were times when I'd either share a youth hockey story or ask the coaching staff a question about coaching. So Gibby started referring to me regularly as "Coach Hatten," which always made me chuckle, but also feel a bit like I was a part of the coaching brotherhood. It may seem small, but it was special to me.
He also had the ability to make a midseason practice more fun in a heartbeat.
A personal favorite is if a player would lose an edge and fall to the ice without another player touching them. If Gibbons was at practice, he would immediately throw a glove to the spot where the player fell and point at it and say, "Watch out. There's slippery ice there."
Now stop and think of all the people you typically run into on a regular basis. How many of them always seem to be in a good mood and will make you smile every time you see them? Mike Gibbons is one of those people and he has the gift of making people feel that way early on after you meet him.
There are many different keys and different ways that people achieve success. One of the keys to Gibbons' success as a coach for 40 years has been his personality. He has that ability to put people at ease, make them smile, find people or things relatable to discuss in very short order.
One of the keys to being a successful college hockey coach is being able to recruit and being personable is a big help.
"To me, Gibby's two biggest strengths were his passion and his ability to connect with people," Huskies head coach Brett Larson said. "The recruit trusts him, the recruit's parents trust him. I think that genuine passion for St. Cloud State came through. It wasn't a sales pitch. It's what he really believes and I think he really has a unique way of connecting with people and creating trust quickly."
Bob Motzko was St. Cloud State's head coach from 2005-18, hired Gibbons as an assistant coach and they spent 11 seasons working with the Huskies together.
"There's no salesman with Gibby," Motzko said. "It's all heart and character. When Gibby jumps in, it's with every piece of his heart. It's a job, but you take it as much more than a job. It's personal. It's your baby. It's hard to explain to people.
"We were recruiting one year and sometimes, you get down on your (assistants) because we had too many recruits. Gibby said, 'No, we're recruiting this player.' I said, 'We're done. We don't have any (scholarship) money left.' Gibby said, 'We'll make it work.' He was adamant. He ended up being one of our great players down the stretch. Gibby knew and he was just relentless."
Spanning the globe
That passion for recruiting took Gibbons all over North America and Europe. Motzko said that in the 1990s, Gibbons was one of the first coaches to go and recruit in Finland. Since 2012, St. Cloud State has had five Finns play (Kalle Kossila, Niklas Nevalainen, Rasmus Reijola, Mika Ilvonen and Jami Krannila) and has commitments from two more (Veeti Miettinen and Valteri Piironen).
While he made annual trips to Finland, the majority of his recruiting time in recent years was spent in the North American Hockey League, the United States Hockey League and the British Columbia Hockey League. And Gibbons admits that not going to games to recruit and not seeing his hockey contacts will be an adjustment.
"Really hard to not be able to make a trip to some of those USHL cities, see some friends in Finland and across the world ... I guess I'll have to do that on my own time," he said. "I think hockey parents have a bad rap sometimes. When you're recruiting quality kids, there's a really good correlation to great parents."
Gibbons will also miss working with defensemen and watching them develop and just being around the Huskies.
"Bob used to tell me you that you fall in love with your players and it's true. I love those guys. I'm going to miss those guys," Gibbons said. "I'm very proud, having recruited All-Americans and NHL players, but I'm most proud of the quality of players and people at St. Cloud State. This year's team is full of them — just quality, quality kids. Every year, I'm amazed at the quality of players that are out there."
And while Motzko has gone on to take over as head coach of the Gophers, Gibbons said that he is grateful that he asked him to be on his staff.
"I'm forever indebted to Bob for giving me this job," he said. "I didn't think I'd fall in love so deeply with the city, the university and the program."
Hrenak coming back
With the delay to the return to classes, Larson said that St. Cloud State's two European players (defenseman Ondrej Trejbal and goalie David Hrenak) and three Canadians (defenseman Tyler Anderson, forward Kyler Kupka and forward Zach Okabe) all went back to their home countries this week.
One of the questions going into the offseason was whether or not Hrenak, a 2018 draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings, would return for his senior season? Contacted via direct message on Twitter, Hrenak said, "Hey Mick, I am coming back to school!"
That means that the Kings will lose exclusive negotiating rights to Hrenak, a two-time All-NCHC Second Team pick, on Aug. 15. The Kings, though, were in a similar situation with forward Nic Dowd and defenseman Kevin Gravel in 2014 and both players ended up playing their first pro games in the organization.
Ahcan still working on a deal
Senior captain Jack Ahcan, one of the top college free agents, said Thursday that he has been talking to a number of teams, but has not settled on a contract yet.
"We're still digging up some information and I couldn't give you a timeline," he said of when he plans on making a final decision. "I'll wake up one morning and think I'm leaning one way and then I'll think something different.
"It's a lot like the (college) recruitment process. It changes up every minute. It's exciting, but I'm looking forward to getting it done."
Ahcan leaves the program as its all-time leader in assists by a defenseman (82) and the third defenseman to have more than 100 career points (103 in 144 games). Ahcan is a two-time All-NCHC Second Team selection and was a second team All-American last season.
3 recruits to watch for
St. Cloud State's two other draft picks (forward Sam Hentges, Minnesota Wild; defenseman Nick Perbix, Tampa Bay Lightning) are both expected to return for their junior seasons. If everyone returns as expected, that means St. Cloud State will be looking to replace five seniors: forwards Jack Poehling, Nick Poehling and Jake Wahlin; defensemen Ahcan and Clark Kuster).
So who can fans expect to see in the freshman class in the fall? It's always fluid at this point, but three players are pretty locked in to join the Huskies: defenseman Brady Ziemer, forwards Joe Molenaar and Miettinen.
Ziemer, who is from Carver, Minn., and played high school hockey for Holy Family Catholic, is a 5-foot-9, 180-pound who turns 20 in May. He had seven points, 72 penalty minutes and was third on the Green Bay Gamblers (USHL) in plus/minus (plus-13). He's known as a gritty defenseman who has a high compete level.
Molenaar, who is from Minnetonka, Minn., led the Skippers to their first Class AA state title in 2018 when he had 31 goals as the team captain. The 20-year-old Molenaar, who is 6-0 and 178 pounds, had his USHL season shortened by injury. He was traded during the season and finished with 10 points, 12 penalty minutes and was a minus-9 in 25 games for the Tri-City Storm and Cedar Rapids Roughriders.
Miettinen, a 5-9, 160-pound 18-year-old, had a season to remember in the top Finnish junior league. He had 42 goals and 73 points in 52 games (1.40 points-per-game), leading the league in goals and points. Miettinen had 14 more goals and 12 more points than anyone else in the league.
Here's some more perspective on his season: Kossila had 20 goals and 57 points in 32 games (1.78 ppg) as an 18-year-old in the league. Kossila had 15 goals and 33 points as a freshman for St. Cloud State and is tied for second in career assists (105) and sixth in career points (153).
As for the other two spots, those are a bit more fluid. The Huskies coaching staff would be out scouting NAHL and USHL games for possible fits, but like everyone else, the end of both of those seasons has been cancelled. Besides making phone contacts with possible recruits, the Huskies are also keeping a close eye on the transfer portal for possible fits.