Since claiming the national title after the 2006-07 season (still the most recent Big Ten team to do it, sweet freaking Jobu this conference just does not win national titles in anything important), Michigan State hockey has been on a 15-year bender.
After winning that title, Rick Comley took an early retirement without telling anybody, meaning by the time he officially hung it up in 2011, the talent level built up by his legendary predecessor Ron Mason had dwindled to a barely-competitive level.
Then-AD Mark Hollis made a bizarre coaching hire to replace Comley, plucking Tom Anastos directly from his post as CCHA commissioner. Anastos had not coached since 1992, but did steer the program to the NCAA Tournament in his first season, so there was some early reason for optimism.
That optimism did not last, as MSU plummeted from relevance in the last year of the old CCHA and for the most part struggled in the move to Big Ten hockey. In his last two seasons, MSU managed a 9-26-5-1 mark, while Red Berenson’s Michigan rolled along, Penn State went from club status to competitive varsity overnight, and Wisconsin looked as though they had their man in Tony Granato. Anastos was fired after the 2017 season.
Hollis then tabbed the guy that I, and probably most Spartan fans, had clamored for when Comley retired in Danton Cole, a Mason-era former player operating the excellent National Team Developmental Program in Plymouth, barely an hour drive away from East Lansing.
Given Anastos had never really gotten recruiting off the ground, the fanbase was generally willing to give Cole a lot of slack. But in five disastrous seasons, Cole’s MSU never even flirted with the tournament or the conference title, and in fact only finished better than last place once, scratching out a 6th place Big Ten finish in 2019-20.
As recently as last season, there were occasional signs the team might be turning things around. But after star forward Mitchell Lewandowski’s midseason injury, MSU ended the season by losing 15 of its last 16 games, a stretch of futility that was almost impressive in a way.
You’d be forgiven for not noticing given how far from this niche sport’s stage MSU has drifted, but shortly after the end of the most recent college hockey season, Michigan State fired Danton Cole. New AD Alan Haller scoured the land far and wide, and settled upon...the head coach of the USNTDP, Adam Nightingale.
There’s nothing objectionable about Nightingale’s resume in and of itself. The NTDP naturally involves coaching many of the most talented players in the country, and at the time of the hire, Nightingale was fresh off of steering the program to silver at the U18 worlds. He spent a few years as an assistant in the NHL, he played for MSU in the Mason era - in other words, he checks a lot of boxes one imagines a Michigan State Athletic Director’s List Of Boxes has on it, he very well may be the man for the job, and he deserves some space and time to prove that.
...but man, going back to this same well after the disaster that was the Cole hire is not exactly the freshest thinking. Cole, too, was a reasonably-successful head man of the NTDP, had also played for the program in the halcyon days of its legendary coach, had also spent some time on NHL benches...presumably, the interview process convinced Alan Haller that this time will be different.
But if this era of MSU hockey ends up looking like the last two, questions ought to be asked about whether and how forcefully MSU took its shot at, for example, Minnesota State-Mankato head coach Mike Hastings. His Mavericks made the final of the Frozen Four last season despite having only two NHL draftees on the roster (for context, the other three teams who made it that far - Minnesota, Michigan, and Denver - had 14, 13, and 12), have made the tournament in seven of his ten years there, and won more games than any other team in the country during his tenure.
Maybe Haller made the call and Hastings told him to pound sand. But I’d sure like to have heard rumors that Michigan State tried to flood Hastings’ house with gold coins and offered him the Scrooge McDuck one-piece to swim in it. With Notre Dame settled in, Bob Motzko having shaken off the late-Lucia malaise in the Twin Cities, and Michigan pretending Mel Pearson didn’t flaunt pandemic safety rules, the neighborhood isn’t getting any friendlier for a team trying to crawl out of the gutter.
Between the more open transfer rules and the possibility of NIL making college hockey more competitive vs the major junior leagues, there may well be an opportunity to turn things around very quickly. Michigan State finally completed long-overdue renovations to Munn Ice Arena that give the building considerably less of a fallout shelter vibe, and I’m very much looking forward to checking the place out, but here’s hoping there will be a more palatable product on the ice under the new head coach.