MANKATO — Mankato is a hockey town.
Residents of this south-central Minnesota town have waited decades to see the Minnesota State Mankato Mavericks win a Division I men’s hockey championship.
That’s why thousands of fans gathered in bars and restaurants in Mankato were heartbroken after the Mavericks collapsed in the third period of the NCAA Frozen Four Championship on Saturday, losing to Denver 5-1.
“It’s the curse of Minnesota, though,” said Andy Literski, 35, of Mankato. “They scored the first goal and then put it in cruise control mode,”
Minnesota State led 1-0 for two periods, leaving many local hockey fans feeling confident heading into the third period. No matter where you turned, there was a restaurant or bar in the Mankato area with the game. There were cheers for every penalty that went the way of the Mavericks, mockery for every perceived injustice.
People strolled down South Front Street, where bars and restaurants line up for Mankato’s nightlife, shouted “Let’s Go Mavericks!” and clapped with the game in progress.
After the match, fans strolling through downtown shouted “We could have been champions!” and lamented that this year’s Hobey Baker Award winner Dryden McKay was unable to win the Division I championship trophy in his final season with the Mavericks.
Minnesota State energized the community last year with its first-ever trip to the Frozen Four, its first trip since the men’s hockey team moved to Division I in 1996. Although the Mavericks lost to St Cloud State, longtime hockey fans were excited to see what Minnesota State could do this season.
“It would be nice for our little school and our little town to be recognized,” by winning the national championship, said Paulina Camacho. Camacho and her husband, Ben Prehn, watched the game from Pub 500 in downtown Mankato.
Diehard local hockey fans, Camacho and Prehn have attended Mavericks games virtually every season since 2006, when they both attended Minnesota State. They missed their first season in 2013 when their eldest son, Benny, was born.
Prehn and Camacho’s kids both skate, and Benny already plays hockey. Their passion for the sport grew in other family members: Camacho’s mother watched the game from Mexico City, while his brother watched it from Louisville, Kentucky.
Still, the couple couldn’t help but be disheartened as Denver scored a goal, then another, then another, and finally hit two empty nets to seal the game.
“They usually dominate the third period,” Prehn said. “I don’t know what their deal was in the last half of the third period.”
The atmosphere inside Pub 500, one of Mankato’s top bars and official host of a Mavericks watch party, turned just as sour as the third period. The loud boos of Denver’s opening goal grew more muted as Denver increased the score. By the time Denver was leading 3-1, people were already leaving.
“It’s a lot more tense,” Antonio Casillas, 28, of Mankato said shortly after Denver’s third goal. “I feel like there’s a general sense of defeat after that.”
Casillas said Saturday’s game was his first time watching hockey, in part because the Mankato area has been abuzz about college hockey for the past few weeks.
Minnesota State students who were unable to attend Saturday’s game in person also filled bars and restaurants. Madeline Neussendorfer and Drew Burling, both freshmen, are part of the Maverick Machine Athletic Band but did not accompany the band in Boston. Instead, they sat at Buffalo Wild Wings on the northeast side of town with a packed crowd watching the game.
“It’s good to see us finally have our chance at success,” Burling said earlier in the evening. Burling has watched hockey with her mother since she was little, and the Mavericks hockey program played a small role in why she chose to attend Minnesota State.
“It shows that you don’t have to like coming from really great schools to be successful,” she said.
Although Minnesota State suffered a big loss on Saturday, fans are already looking ahead to next year.
“They reached the Frozen Four last year for the first time, they reached the championship for the first time this year, we will win it [next year]”, Camacho said. “I’m confident.”