By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
Minnesota State Mavericks head coach Mike Hastings has spent his coaching career evaluating hockey players. Often, he finds himself putting skaters in one of two categories- talent versus instinct; physical versus mental. Every once in a while a player comes along who knocks him off his chair with both. Jake Jaremko was one of those players. From the second the Elk River high school product appeared on his radar, Hastings knew the talented forward was in a class of his own.
"He's got an honesty to his game when you watch him and how he goes about his business," replied Hastings, when asked about his first impressions of Jaremko. "First of all, I think that comes off right away; his intelligence- his hockey IQ. It's a game that for some moves too fast. Jake can decipher when the game speeds up or slows down and he can still continue to be effective at both situations. Watching him, he makes other people around him better by presenting himself to receive pucks or being able to get pucks to players. Passes are not direct at times, but you still have to find a way to get a puck to somebody in a scoring area and he is very good at that. Whether it's through deception of his own stick and what he's doing, or being able to move to an area where he can find somebody with the puck in a dangerous area. That is the first. He also had a history of being successful on the scoresheet. Then it was digging in about him and determining if he is a guy who is willing to defend. That's not always very glamorous. Was he willing to do the work? What type of person was he? What type of teammate was he? In talking to anyone who had dealt with not only Jake but his entire family, you find out that they are just really good people. When you combine all of that, there's a guy who is willing to do the work and has the talent. And, those are guys you want on your team."
Everywhere Jaremko has gone, success has followed. The 2015 Minnesota Mr. Hockey Award winner, Jaremko racked up over 110 points during his high school career before skating into the United States Hockey League (USHL). Playing for the Chicago Steel, the numbers continued to pile up as Jaremko tallied 48 points in 60 games during the 2015-16 season. Then last year, acting as an alternate captain, Jaremko registered 46 more points during the regular season, helping Chicago sail into the USHL playoffs as one of the favorites to win the prestigious Clark Cup. Already known for his ability to make big plays during big moments, Jaremko put an exclamation point on his USHL career by scoring 13 points in 14 games during the Steel's Clark Cup run. Chicago ultimately won the USHL championship.
From a distance, Hastings was watching every second of it. So was everyone else. By the time Jaremko arrived in Mankato as a freshman forward for the Mavericks this past fall, the excitement was beginning to mount. Named as the pre-season favorite for the WCHA Rookie of the Year Award by the league's coaches, Hastings knew that the 21-year-old freshman had the skills to make a difference, he just didn't know how much. Now a few shorts months later Hastings (and the rest of college hockey) is getting their answer. Through 16 games, the Nowthen, Minn. native not only ranks third on the Mavericks in scoring (4g-13a=17pts) but is first in the WCHA in rookie scoring (fifth overall) and is second nationally among all NCAA Division I freshman, averaging 1.06 points per game.
"I don't know, even up to this time, that I've had to ask him to work hard. When someone comes into the rink with a smile on their face and they have a hard hat on and are ready to work, bringing that every day, those guys are fun to work with," commented Hastings. "You take that and then add on the fact that I think his greatest gift is what he has between the ears; he has a great hockey head. He thinks the game very well. There are a lot of guys that want to play with players like that. If I'm a wing I want a center that can get me the puck and gets open where I can get it back to him. His awareness on the rink and his ability to change his pace to the situation is special. He can speed it up when he needs to or slow it down when he needs to, and then be able to see it and make plays inside of that, I think that's what makes him a special player."
"I wanted to come in and produce right away and I think that's been going pretty well so far," explained Jaremko. "Coach Hastings has done a really good job coaching me; I can't thank him enough for that. Coming into Mankato in the summer, that was big for me. Our strength coach, Tom Inkrott, has done an awesome job also. They have got me prepared for the year and I think the results have translated onto the ice so far this season."
Jaremko has been at his best recently. After accumulating four points through his first nine games (all assists), the fabulous freshman has picked up 13 points over his last seven games (4g-9a)- more than any other NCAA rookie since November 10. He has also been able to make an impact away from the puck. During the month of November, Jaremko led all WCHA freshmen in plus/minus with a rating of +3, to go along with leading the league rookies in points and assists- all enough to earn WCHA Rookie of the Month honors. He then started December with four more points (two goals and two assists) against Lake Superior State, helping the Mavericks to a weekend sweep. Most importantly, during Jaremko's most recent seven-game blitz, Minnesota State has gone 5-2 as a team and is now just one point behind Bowling Green for the WCHA lead (with two games in-hand on the league leader).
"I think the main thing would be my hockey sense. I have a good sense of finding where people are on the rink in terms of assists and scoring. That and my speed are probably my best attributes that have helped me with scoring," commented Jaremko. "I think I have been playing with a lot more confidence through this point streak, everything has kind of been clicking and being at the right place at the right time lately. I just try to help out the team the best I can, any situation that the coaches put me in I am ready for it. I'm just trying to help the team the best way possible."
He's not the only newbie making waves in Mankato. Jaremko is just one of many rookies who have helped the Mavericks to an 11-5-0 overall record and a 9-3-0 mark in the WCHA. Fellow freshman Reggie Lutz currently ranks third in the conference in freshman scoring (2g-8a=10pts) and forward Jared Spooner is right behind him, in eighth (2-6=8). Defensively, the Mavericks commonly dress three freshmen on defense, while Jack McNeely (0-6=6) and Connor Mackey (2-3=5) are the top-two scoring rookie blue-liners in the WCHA.
It's not the first time Hastings and his staff has seen this type of production from a newcomer, or a group of them. It seems that every season the Mavericks are able to find a solid group of first-year players who have been able to make an impact right away. Last season, now-sophomore Marc Michaelis was the WCHA Rookie of the Year, finished second in the league in scoring, and was named to the All-WCHA First Team and the WCHA All-Rookie Team. Two seasons ago, Max Coatta and Daniel Brickley were among the league's best freshmen. Three seasons ago, Brad McClure and C.J. Suess ranked second and third, respectively, in the WCHA in rookie scoring at the end of the year. Are you starting to see a trend? The rest of college hockey certainly is, as Minnesota State ranks fourth in the country with 133 wins during the Mike Hastings era.
"It's incredibly refreshing because it immediately gives the freshmen a leg to stand on when they earn their right to pull the jersey over their shoulders, they earn their right through what they do in the summer and what they do work-ethic wise and through preparation, and they earn it from those older players," replied Hastings when asked about the year-after-year impact of freshmen. "That's not something I do or the assistant coaches do. They have to stand on their own two legs once they get here, so when you bring in quality people and quality players, I think it makes it a little bit less of an adjustment because they are capable of carrying that load; whether it's Marc Michaelis a year ago with Parker Tuomie and that group or this year with this group. Night in and night out we are usually dressing three freshmen on defense, and there have been times when we've had seven freshmen in our lineup of 20. The only way for that to work with the older guys is if they are capable. It's refreshing from a coaching standpoint. Our job is to give opportunity, but it's actually the player's job to take that opportunity and do something with it and they have done that."
That doesn't mean there aren't growing pains. Currently ranked seventh in the nation, the Mavericks have all the pieces to make the 2017-18 season one to remember; however, they are still learning how to press on the accelerator and keep it there. Minnesota State has 16 players on the roster who are either freshmen or sophomores, meaning many are still adjusting to life in the WCHA. One of the biggest areas where Hastings and his staff have seen that on-going adjustment, and the headaches that go along with it, has been dealing with the team's overall consistency. For example, after losing their first game of the season to St. Cloud State, the Mavericks rattled off three wins; outscoring their opponents 13-4 during that stretch. Then they lost one followed by three more wins. Then one loss. Then three wins. Then two losses. Two more wins…. The streaks have come in bunches and so have the goals when they are winning. During their four mini-win streaks this season (three wins in a row three times and currently on a two-game winning streak), MSU has outscored their opponents 13-4, 11-4, 19-9 and 12-1, respectively. In their five losses this season, they have been outscored 20-5.
"Sometimes I think we just need to be reminded of how hard it is to get to that result of scoring those goals," remarked Hastings. "There is not one thing that goes into it. There is a multitude of things whether it's five-on-five or the power play. Are we doing things to create power plays because we our doing hard things like getting to the net or staying at the net? Are we doing what we need to be doing in support of one another? Are we doing what we need to be doing as an individual and making sure we are moving and creating time and space for ourselves or for others to come and support? Are we willing to do the things you need to do to be successful? They are hard; it's not easy. That's the biggest thing to get our group to understand, or any group for that matter.
"I get it- it's hard to succeed," continued the two-time WCHA Coach of the Year. "It's hard to score four goals on a given night. It's hard to make sure the other team just gets one. These are teachable moments and coaching moments for us. We want to keep accentuating the positives when we are doing well, and then continuing to try and develop a mentality that is long-term. When you look at our losses I don't know if we are scoring two goals per game. My approach to that is I think we sometimes get a little comfortable in the mindset of how hard it is. When things go well, I think sometimes they forget about the journey of how you got to five or how you got to six (goals). It's just trying to get those things to be habits that are long-standing."
Simply put; it's a marathon and not a sprint.
Hastings believes his team will remember these lessons as the Mavericks wrap up the season's first half this weekend with Alabama Huntsville, before a two-week break and opening the second-half slate Dec. 29 and 30 vs. Northern Michigan. As the calendar turns to 2018, and this season's bumper crop of Minnesota State freshmen continue to grow and further mesh with its talented upperclassmen, hopes run high. Jaremko and Lutz certainly have experience raising championship hardware together (in the USHL), as do the likes of McClure, Suess and Zeb Knutson in the WCHA. Under Hastings' expert guidance, a long-term outlook of shared glory in Mankato may very well be in the cards for this Mavericks team.