MANKATO — Perhaps it was the impending arrival of the National Hockey League in Minnesota in the 1960s that had the game growing in popularity throughout the state. Whatever the reason, it was about that time that the higher-ups at Mankato State College approached an assistant baseball coach for the team — then still known as the Indians — with an idea.
“The dean of the school, who oversaw athletics, said that there had been an interest in starting a hockey program and asked if I’d like to do that,” Don Brose said. “I said, ‘Sure, where’s the rink?’ Well, there wasn’t a rink. There wasn’t even an outdoor rink.”
If you wanted to play college hockey in Mankato in the 1965-66 school year, when Brose first put a team on the ice, you had to drive your own car each day nearly 30 miles round trip, to and from an outdoor rink on the Gustavus Adolphus College campus, where MSC rented ice time. It was a humble beginning, to be sure.
Within a year, the players pitched in to get Mankato its own outdoor rink, and in 1974 the community opened All Seasons Arena, near the hilltop campus of what became Mankato State University, and eventually Minnesota State University.
“That’s when the program took off,” said Brose, who is retired and turns 81 on April 13. Less than a decade after the team (which became the Mavericks in 1977) got a rink with a roof over it, Brose led the program to the 1980 NCAA Division II championship.
A former Oriole, Cobber player
While hockey may have been relatively new to some of the sports fans in southern Minnesota, where baseball, football and basketball dominated the sports landscape, for Brose it was a big part of his upbringing.
He played high school hockey in St. Louis Park in a time when the Orioles were every bit the powerful program that neighboring Edina would become. In college, Brose played for Concordia College in Moorhead where the school’s football coach was also, technically, the head hockey coach.
“He never stepped on the rink once, so they made me the player/coach,” Brose recalled, leading the Cobbers on the bench and from the ice for his final two years of school.
In the 1980s, playing in the NCHA against in-state rivals like Bemidji State and St. Cloud State and the Wisconsin public schools, the Mavericks were contenders for the conference crown every year. In 1987, SCSU made the jump to Division I with a kick-start from Herb Brooks.
Five years later, the Mavericks prepared to do the same. But on the eve of what was to be their first D-I season, in the fall of 1992, they hit a political roadblock in the form of the Minnesota State University Board, which was the governing body for Minnesota’s state colleges and universities.
“That was one time I almost hung it up,” Brose said. “I brought in 17 freshmen and was all set to go. I think it was three or four weeks after school started, this issue came up at the State University Board and they turned us down, eight-zip...I almost hung up the skates then.”
The board said that the president at MSU had not gone through the proper channels needed to elevate a program like hockey to Division I status. This was a big problem for the Mavericks, who had left their D-III conference and were forced to play as an independent at the Division II level for a time.
Getting an arena built
Two years later, the board voted again, in a public meeting at the Minnesota State Capitol, and the move to D-I was approved. But it was clear that All Seasons would not be adequate for a D-I hockey program. Plans were made for a downtown Mankato facility with 4,000 or so seats, which would be funded by a small tax increase.
The issue would go to a city-wide vote, and the community was split. Proponents of the athletics program strongly supported the referendum, while many with no ties to the school or much interest in sports did not want to see their taxes go up.
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“I don't know where this program would be without him through those years and the work he put in,” said Mavericks assistant coach Darren Blue, who also praised then-athletic director Don Amiot for the work in getting the building approved. “A number of people in our community battled to get that arena done.
"We were in a tough environment for hockey at that time. We had to go one way or another as a program and Don and so many people worked hard to advocate for it. There were a lot of battles internally to get over that hump. For him to see what the program is now, it's a pretty rewarding time for him to see the success the team is having.”
With a referendum to win, Brose put his skates and whistle away and put on his politicking clothes.
“We cut off practices to get the guys to go door to door in the student housing on campus and the off-campus neighborhoods, put signs up and encourage people to vote in the election,” Brose said. “The darn thing passed by about 300 votes, and that’s about the number of people that voted in the precincts around the university. It was very controversial. I still have people hit me with, ‘Oh, you raised my taxes’ and that kind of stuff.”
The Mankato Civic Center opened in early 1995. The Mavericks played their first games as a D-I independent program in 1996, and joined the WCHA in 1999. Brose coached them to a fourth-place finish that season, falling to the Gophers in the Thursday night play-in game at the 2000 WCHA Final Five.
He was named the WCHA Coach of the Year, and walked away from hockey after 30 seasons as the Mankato coach, winning more than 60 percent of his games.
On a Thursday afternoon in April 2021, the modern incarnation of the program that began all those years ago will do battle versus an old NCHA rival, with the winner going to the D-I national championship game.
“We were on the ground floor of getting the building developed and moving toward being a Division I team,” said J.P. Piche, who played goalie for the Mavericks in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. “To see it from from there to where it is now, and all the work coach Brose put in, it's a special thing.”
Brose spent a few months this winter in an assisted living facility, recovering from a medical issue and said he is happy to be back in his home. But on Wednesday afternoon, he planned to board a plane at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, and on Thursday he will be at the arena in Pittsburgh, to watch and cheer for the team he started at an outdoor rink on a rival school’s campus more than a half-century ago.