Ron Mason, remembering a legend
There’s a story that long-time MSU hockey assistant coach Tom Newton tells about Ron Mason. He remembers walking into Mason’s office hearing Mason yelling for assistant coach Kris Smith to check the lotto tickets he left on Smith’s desk.
“Ron, you didn’t win,” Smith called out.
“How come I don’t get to win the lottery!” Mason yelled back, “irate” he hadn’t pulled the winning numbers.
“It was like, oh man, this guy expects to win everything,” Newton said. “That kind of sums it up right there. He expected to win the lotto, even though his chances were better of being hit by lightning.”
During his 23 seasons at the helm of MSU hockey, it was Mason’s competitive spirit, fiery passion for the game and commitment to winning that made him endearing to his players, coaches and fans. And he won — often. Mason, 76, died in the early hours of June 13 leaving behind an undeniable legacy of 924 wins in college hockey and a far bigger impact on the university and the people surrounding it in the 23 seasons he called MSU home.
Ask countless people who witnessed the man first hand and they’ll say Mason was made of hockey and in turn hockey was made up of him. He played at the collegiate level for St. Lawrence University leading the Fighting Saints in scoring twice and helped guide them to an Eastern College Athletic Conference title and trip to the Frozen Four.
After graduating, Mason jumpstarted the Lake Superior State University hockey program in 1966. Competing in their first ever game, the Lakers secured a 7-0 victory. Mason and the Lakers captured a NAIA national championship in 1972 before Mason left the Lakers in 1973 for Bowling Green State University.
At Bowling Green, Mason swiftly turned the Falcons into a powerhouse with six CCHA titles (three regular season, three playoff titles) in six seasons becoming the first team from the CCHA to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament in 1977. But there were bigger sights for Mason to pursue as he headed for MSU amidst questioning over his decision to leave the power house he created.
MSU hockey, coming off three straight seasons of falling short of expectations, needed a turnaround. In his first few seasons Mason, did not win as often as he had at LSSU and BGSU but that quickly changed when MSU switched conferences to the CCHA. After the switch Mason solidified his legacy with 17 CCHA titles (7 regular season, 10 tournament), 19 NCAA tournament appearances, seven Frozen Four berths and one national championship in 1986.
He piled up a record of 635-270-69 at MSU and in his final season with the Spartans he eclipsed 900 career wins. Upon retirement he totaled a record of 924-380-83, making him the winningest college hockey coach of all time. But while the accolades he garnered are front and center to the Ron Mason legend, it was what he built in the hockey and MSU community in the process that made him so endearing and beloved.
The culture he fostered
A commitment to excellence was the standard for Mason, and he sold it well.
“A big reason I came to Michigan State was because of Ron Mason,” current MSU head coach Tom Anastos said. “I just felt that I really believed in his vision for what the program was going to be and the opportunity he was presenting to me and he obviously made me feel I could be a big contributor here.”
Mason was innovative on many fronts trying different ways of preparation to ensure the vision he sold to Anastos. He broke down film with his players at Bowling Green which in the seventies that wasn’t happening everywhere else, Newton said. Mason was good at understanding the tactics of the game and his innovation shifted with him to MSU. But it was how he deployed his tactics and through whom, that provided the wins.
“He had an uncanny ability to know how to use his players, put players together, their strengths and motivate them,” Anastos said.
It was a motivation founded on respect, admiration and that expectation of excellence so many of his players talked about. Mason led as unhypocritical as they come. His “competitive fire” and “incredible intensity” were the same in his words and actions.
Anastos said he remembered walking into the locker room after their first loss of the season one year and preparing to brush off the loss. Gary Haight committed a turnover late in the game on a risky play that gave MSU the loss that night.
“I was one of the first guys in and he was waiting for Haight,” Anastos said. “He grabbed him and throws him against the wall, sticks go flying everywhere. It was that moment I learned that every game kind of matters and you can’t waste opportunities to win games.”
Mason’s intensity stuck with Anastos as it presumably has with other players. It helped garner a respect for Mason.
“He had a great mind for the game and when he walked into the room he had the attention and respect of everyone,” former player Jim Slater told MSU.
He had command of his players because they respected him. He was driven by that commitment to excellence and so were his players. But maybe none saw the fire better used against an opponent than Michigan head hockey coach Red Berenson.
“We had some good battles with Michigan State and Ron Mason loved to beat Michigan, believe me,” Berenson said Tuesday. “He was into the rivalry big time.”
Mason piled up a 42-29-8 record over Berenson, though the rivalry was more competitive than it seems as many of Mason’s wins came early as Berenson built up the Michigan program. “We used him as a barometer really, that we have to get better if we’re going to compete with Michigan State,” Berenson said. “He was the coach that was as experienced and successful as anyone in the country during his time.”
The overarching commitment to excelling not only brought wins to the program but produced individual awards to his players. Kip Miller and Ryan Miller each took home the Hobey Baker — college hockey’s version of the Heisman trophy — under Coach Mason’s guidance.
He and his players generated a sense of pride to the campus and steady consistency not seen in other MSU sports. Spartan faithful packed Munn Arena to the brim for many a game including 17 years of sellouts which encompassed 323 regular season games. It seems to be a foreign concept now that hockey was once the draw of the Spartan sports landscape. It’s an ode to what Mason built and it seems to be the end of an era.
And perhaps that’s what makes the passing of Mason harder to swallow. He was bigger than hockey, but through the sport he was able to touch lives even just for a little moment in time.
Bigger than himself
Mason was seen often outside the rink. He frequented the area and in his interactions, by accounts, he was genuine. He was genuine with the fans and others who partook in his business. As one of the founders of the CCHA, it was a dream of his to create a league of that magnitude. The CCHA was thankful. So thankful it renamed its championship trophy in his honor — while he was still coaching. He won it that year too.
“When you think of Ron, you think of hockey, and specifically college hockey,” Comely told MSU. “He built three programs and loved the college game. The CCHA came about because of a dream and he took a lot of pride in helping it become one of the best conferences in the nation.”
He extended his influence to all parts of the game as well, fighting for college hockey and putting his ideas for the game out there. And those ideas came with a touch of selflessness.
“He believed in college hockey,” Berenson said, adding he always pushed for college hockey at a time when many didn’t think college hockey players could compete in the NHL. Now roughly a third of the NHL is made up of former college hockey players.
When Mason stepped into the Athletic Director role he extended his mark to campus by updating Spartan Stadium by adding 3000 seats and the tower of the stadium that houses the original Sparty statute. Perhaps his greatest contributions however were to his family. When his son-in-law Shawn Walsh, former hockey coach at the University of Maine, died suddenly he stepped up to be a father for his grandsons, Tyler and Travis.
“I know when Shawn passed, that was hard for Ron because he didn’t want his grandsons not to have a father,” Newton said. “That was role I believed he picked up and did everything he could to support his grandsons.”
Travis played for MSU, recently graduating this past season. Travis was a huge reason Mason made it back to MSU regularly and could be seen many times passing through the press box, alive and vibrant. He still seemed poised to be able to take over the game and coach if he ever was called upon.
He was instrumental in building college hockey, evident by his induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013. He created hockey players and he created men. So many are and were proud to have him as a friend and mentor. He was a pioneer, a coach, a friend, a family man, a hockey man through and through. But most all of he was a legend. And legends never truly die.