EAST LANSING, Mich. -- While Michigan State is known for athletic success in football and basketball, most are unaware of the equal success of the Michigan State club hockey team over the last 15 years.
Club sports are generally student-run organizations, but in 2001 the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) began requiring a non-student coach for teams to better structure and organize the league. Michigan State added Jim Martin as coach and has been a powerhouse since.
Under Martin, the Spartans have qualified for the national championship tournament 14 of 15 years, and won three national championships (2005, 2007, 2013). The titles put the Spartans second all time for ACHA Division 2 teams.
While Martin enjoys winning, he sees success on the ice reserved purely for the players.
“The championships are for the players,” Martin said. “I like to feel like I am making a difference not just improving them as hockey players, but as students and people too.”
Martin’s favorite memories are hearing about players gaining opportunities in life, whether it be continuing to play hockey or getting a successful job, due to their club hockey experiences at MSU.
Justin Sand, a goaltender from 2005-09, used the club hockey team as a way to continue playing college, ultimately leading to a professional contract. Sand said he originally tried to walk on to varsity, but after finding out his playing time would be limited decided to join the club hockey team.
“It was a lot better caliber hockey than I had expected. A lot of people think club hockey and they don’t expect a whole lot of talent, but when you put it into perspective it is a lot of other players just like you who were on the boarder of making a junior team or a college division one team,” said Sand.
Sand played one year in the Austrian Hockey League for HK Acroni Jesenice and returned to the U.S. to play a few more seasons of various levels of professional hockey.
Forward Trevor McSween, who started playing in 2012, said he was taught valuable leadership skills as a captain of the team that won the 2013 national championship. Although McSween did not pursue hockey beyond college, his believes his time with the team was vital.
“I am a big proponent of the advantages of athletics, gave me leadership opportunities that you wouldn’t see if you weren’t involved in sports,” McSween said.
McSween said those skills transitioned well off the ice to his current job at Fiat Chrysler and were important as a student when he was at Michigan State.
While Martin values success off the ice, he explained how he wants to give his players every opportunity to enjoy their hockey experience. Instead of scheduling easier opponents to set a more straightforward path to the national championship tournament, Martin goes for the best strength of schedule. The team travels out of the Midwest to play ACHA powers across the country, creating unique experiences for the players and Martin.
Senior forward Alex Sauchak, who is playing in his fourth season this year, recalls a trip to the Naval Academy
“We had one of their cadets take us around and we got to see what a day in the life of a naval cadet was like, and that was pretty eye opening.” Sauchak said.
Sand said his most memorable trip was one to Arizona in the middle of winter. He called his dad, who was in Michigan stuck in record snowstorms. Sauchak and the team were enjoying a nice sunny day by the pool in Arizona.
That night, Sand said, a few thousand packed the arena - about half were in Michigan State gear – to see them play.
Aside from these trips Martin has clearly left an impact on the lives of those past and present from his teams.
“I can speak for just about everyone on my team, when I say that Jim is like a father figure. A lot of kids on the team are from out of state and don’t get to see their families that often. He is a very accommodating guy… that’s just the guy he is, he cares about us and we care about him,” said Sauchak.
Martin has no plans of leaving the Spartan club hockey team anytime soon, “The players on the team are really, really good kids and I like to think I make a difference doing it. I think they appreciate it. Every year it’s really fun, it’s nice getting to know the kids, nice watching them grow and nice watching them develop hockey skills. It has just been really enjoyable to do and as long as it stays like that I am sure I will be here as long as they play,” said Martin.