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Michigan State Hockey Is Returning To Winning Ways

MSU Hockey
MSU Athletics

There have been long, lean years for Spartans, but big wins and complete culture change under Coach Danton Cole is making Munn Arena packed again.

EAST LANSING, Mich. – It’s no secret that Michigan State hockey has been struggling for a while. It’s been a long struggle for fans, who still remember the faint glimmers of the 2007 NCAA title season.

Since then, the losses have piled up, coaches have come and gone, and fans waited – and hoped – for Spartan hockey to return to being a power program.

Things are looking happier these days around Munn Arena, thanks to former star player-turned current MSU Coach Danton Cole’s plan to restore culture and character starting to translate into wins.

“Just like anything, it takes a little time,” co-captain Sam Saliba said, referring to the rebuilding process. “We’re getting everything out of everybody… this year everyone just kind of bought in, and that says a lot.”

Cole said, before the season, that creating a stronger framework for MSU hockey would take the coaches and players being on the same page.

“As coaches, you have to drive it, you have to build that culture every day and you can’t get away from it, but when the players are driving it it’s way stronger,” said Cole. “What they did in the spring and summer was take control of that locker room – it’s their locker room now. It’s a championship leadership that we’ve had, and it’s a great thing for coaches.”

The term “championship” has a nice ring to it, but winning another national title this season is unlikely for MSU. The possibilities of winning the Big Ten and earning a bid to the NCAA tournament are more within reach. The Spartans are tied for second with Ohio State in the Big Ten and have a conference record of 6-3-1.

It is a refreshing look, considering MSU finished last in the Big Ten the past two years.

Cole’s reclamation project has been tough, as he has a 24-41-7 record at MSU, but his primary focus is figuring out how to get every player - veteran to rookie - to accept the new culture change. Nine of the 30 players on this year’s roster have seen the progression first-hand, playing for both former Coach Tom Anastos and Cole.

Veterans Saliba and Butrus Ghafari believe in the Cole-led transformation.

“Something new is good. It brings new energy, a new approach, and new life,” said

Forward Saliba. “In the six or seven years he [Anastos] was here, the program just didn’t seem like it was going where we wanted it to go. I give a lot of credit to Danton and the staff for giving us new direction.”

Ghafari, a senior defenseman, agrees with Saliba about Cole’s impact.

“We feed off of him; he’s a high energy guy,” said Ghafari. “He knows what it takes to win. He wants us to be on those banners, so him reminiscing on his days and wanting to see that in us really pushes that culture to kind of go back to the Ron Mason days.”

Mason, MSU’s head coach for 23 seasons, finished with MSU record of 635-270-69 - the second most-winningest college coach in history. To say this team’s culture is heading back to what it was during those times, hints that Cole’s leadership is moving the team down the right path.

Cole knows what it takes to win hockey games, and he proved it during his time as a player. During his hockey career at MSU, he helped his team win a national championship in 1986, among several other accomplishments. Now as a head coach, there is only so much Cole can do from behind the bench, but he believes that his players are taking the necessary steps needed in order to win.

“I see all the work they put in, the sacrifices they make, and how hard they all want it and how much they want it for the university. They do a ton, they get along great and they’re changing things here,” said Cole.

The Spartan playing style isn’t as sexy, but hard work and smarter puck decisions have produced better results for the Big Ten underdogs. It swept rival Michigan for the first time in a decade back in November, earned a win and a tie against No. 3 Notre Dame, and swept No. 19 Wisconsin in its last series.

On the ice, what makes the 2019-20 Spartans different from past seasons is the absence of individuality amongst the players. It’s more about the ability to unite for a bigger cause. All-American winger Taro Hirose led last year’s Spartans in points (50) and assists (35), and there was a large gap to fill with his departure to the Detroit Red Wings over the summer.

MSU’s points are coming from forwards Patrick Khodorenko (15 points), Mitchell Lewandowski (11), and Logan Lambdin (9). Freshmen forwards are also scoring, with Josh Nodler (2 goals), Nicolas Müller (2), and Jagger Joshua (1). Behind the blue line, all three defensive pairings have been clicking, and goaltender John Lethemon has been strong.

Lethemon is tied for second place amongst all goaltenders in the NCAA for shutouts with three, and continues to make game-changing saves.

MSU Hockey
Credit MSU Athletics

The success of the Spartans is also leading to Munn Arena returning to a rollicking spot for college hockey again. The ice arena has a capacity of 6,470, and in only one out of eight home games played this season has attendance fallen below 5,000. MSU rewarded its fans by defending Munn fairly well, with a 4-2-1 record.

The rankings are also reflecting MSU’s growth. After completing the sweep of Wisconsin, MSU jumped up to No. 18 in USCHO top-20 poll. This is the highest rank in the Cole-era, and the second time being on the list this season.

“Winning helps. Recruits see that, and that certainly helps when you’re in the room talking with young men on where the program is going,” said Cole. “You can say what you want, but sometimes the proof is in what you’re doing. I’m a big believer of that.”

Recruiting is clicking again too, with international prospect Nikita Tarasevich coming to MSU next season. The 16-year-old forward from Minsk, Belarus currently plays on the Little Caesars U-16 AAA team, and will take on an important role in restructuring the offense when  Khodorenko, Saliba, and Lambdin graduate in May.  

“We want it to be known that expectations are high not just on the ice, but in the classroom and in the community here,” said Saliba. “When recruits come here on visits, we’re making them feel really welcomed, and I think that’s something Michigan State has always been good at. It’s something I saw when I got here, and we just want to continue that.”

From top to bottom, everyone on the team seems to be making a difference in bringing a name and culture back to Michigan State hockey. It’s been a long-time coming, but something great is in the making on the ice in East Lansing.

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