Michigan State Hockey Keeps Rebuilding, Even Through Challenging Times
The Spartans look to keep last season’s momentum going, both on and off the ice.
It’s not easy to restart a program culture, but Michigan State hockey is making clear progress. However, nobody factored in trying to keep hockey going during a coronavirus pandemic.
Last winter, the Spartans were off to their best start since the 2014-15 season, but the whole college hockey schedule was shut down due to COVID-19 on March 7.
And to make matters worse, the Spartans had their last game be a shutout loss to rival Michigan.
Still, a breakthrough was made by the MSU hockey team. Spartans showed strides in bringing a hockey atmosphere back to Munn.
Maintaining that momentum will be a challenge this season, as the ongoing pandemic and a large roster turnover due to graduation are huge things. Nine seniors graduated, bringing in eight freshmen and a graduate transfer as new Spartans.
“Coming back this year, COVID has weirdly enough brought the team closer together,” said senior forward Gianluca Esteves. “We hang out with the guys 24-7, and it helps the freshman you know, come in with an easier path. Our practices didn’t take as long to get going just from the chemistry we built off of from being together.”
During the shortened season, Esteves recorded a career high in points (8) and was an Academic All-Big Ten. He is among seven current seniors hoping to lead a new core to the same success they experienced last season.
“The freshman did a great job adjusting,” said senior and co-captain Miller. “The freshmen picked up quickly on everything we are trying to build here.”
Just like Esteves, Miller came off of a career year. He was MSU’s Most Improved Player, with a career high in points (12).
“There’s still stuff you can improve on every year even with having a great year before,” said Miller. “I wanted to get better at skating and protecting the puck. That’s something I wanted to get better during the offseason. It was tougher this year because of COVID, but we were still able to get our work done.”
This type of extra work is what the fans want to see, but unfortunately, there will be none in the stands of Munn this season. The Munnsters will not be making themselves known by screaming and banging up on the glass. No fans are allowed in the area, meaning MSU hockey games will be contested for few witnesses.
The fans might not be in person, but the Munnsters still show their support with fan cardboard cutouts. Music is played and there is some piped-in noise to break the silence.
“It’s definitely different with no fans,” said Miller. “We are lucky at MSU to have the Munnsters, and when the Munn is packed, it’s the best rink to play at in college hockey.”
Not being able to feed off the crowd can be difficult to maintain the essence of college hockey. But the character and culture allow the Spartans to carry on without fans.
“We have enough guys on our team to create enough energy,” said Miller. “We are continuing to keep the flow as much as we can, but when there’s a big hit, or a goal, it’s definitely a bummer to not hear the crowd. We really do have the best fans.”
The direction that the team was going was satisfying for a lot of these seniors, especially with their first season being capped off with 22 losses. But from there, improvements to both the environment at Munn and a winning culture transgressed.
“Every year we’ve been here we’ve progressed and gotten better every year since our freshman year, with last year being our best year,” said Esteves. “And coming into this year, we thought we had a better team and we’re hoping to make steps. We got a really good group, and we are focusing on getting better this year.”
It was the first time for the senior class that the culture seemed to be going in a direction for the better.
For senior forward Brody Stevens, it was the first time he could see strides in their progress.
“We’ve been rebuilding a culture, and it’s cool to be a part of something like this from square one to where it is now,” said Stevens. “Last year was really the first year where we felt really confident going into the playoffs.”
Stevens also saw a career high in points (8), including five assists.
The progression and success that Stevens has been a part of over the past four years is something he would have never expected as a freshman.
“Freshman year when we lost, it stung a little less when we lost because we thought to ourselves this is progress and we are working towards a goal,” said Stevens. “And every year the losses were harder to shake off. You were going through things in your head where we were close to winning this game or lost because of a dumb penalty and that was really the only reason we let it get away.”
Even with being a COVID season, Stevens still keeps his excitement.
“It’s exciting because every game, every point you understand the meaning of it,” said Stevens. “Especially me being a senior and knowing how close we’ve been.”
But the seniors aren’t just experiencing a change in their culture, but now as their roles for the new class.
“This year we sort of realized we need to take a leadership role, especially with a lot of young freshmen coming in,” said Esteves.
And for Miller as one of the captains on the team, he understands is a big part of the freshman experience this season.
“We want to make sure the freshmen are as comfortable as they can be,” said Miller. “Show them the ropes with how practices and workouts are going to be. We’re here to work, but we’re here to play hockey, and they really bought into it.”
A Different Life in Quarantine
Just like most people across the world, quarantine took away a lot of opportunities for intrapersonal relationships. In order for the team to continue strong relationships, they had to get creative.
“When the Michael Jordan documentary came out, we would all watch them and get on Zoom call as groups,” said junior forward Adam Goodsir. “We would probably get five to seven guys a group, with coaches to discuss the episode.”
Goodsir, who was one of four Spartans to earn Krampade All-American Scholar honors by the American Hockey Coaches Association with a 3.75 GPA, says how important the constant communication in quarantine made the players build off of their strong culture.
“So throughout quarantine we would talk with the guys and the coaches, probably every week,” said Goodsir. “The coaches would just randomly call you and check-in. We wouldn’t even talk about hockey sometimes. They wanted to just see what we’ve been up to.”
And with gyms being shut down for most of quarantine, Goodsir and others found ways to not only work out, but still keep that connection. They turned to the Peloton app, where workouts can be streamed live.
“Peloton had a free 90-day subscription, so we downloaded it, signed up and two or three days a week, we would all get on the same Peloton and work out,” said Goodsir. “We were all working out together and keeping that morale going. We were not sure when it was going to end, but when it was, we would be prepared to play the season.”