Frozen Four to hockey hell: a decade-long tale of MSU hockey
Over the past decade, many fans waited for the fall season to arrive to cheer on the football team bleeding the colors of green and white. The snow began to fall and fans got ready to cheer on men's basketball coach Tom Izzo and the basketball team, but there was one sport many seemed to forget about: the hockey team.
As stadiums get bigger and other teams get better, MSU's hockey team struggles to draw in fans. The new leadership and eight new freshmen are meant to bring back a great team.
But going back to MSU's former glory may take longer than fans are willing to wait.
From Frozen Four to hockey hell
For Spartan hockey diehards, it's hard to forget the team's championship win a decade ago.
During the 2006-2007 season, the MSU men’s ice hockey team defeated Boston College 3-1 in the Frozen Four to be crowned National Champions. Former Spartan and current Detroit Red Wings’ forward Justin Abdelkader scored the second goal in the game with 18 seconds left to gain the lead.
Last season, the Spartans ended with a 7-24-4 record. MSU hockey writer Neil Koepke, who has covered the Spartans for 32 seasons, said the community's attitude toward hockey has changed dramatically.
“The culture has changed somewhat in the last 15 years because one of the reasons is the emergence of football, in terms of a big time show, great success under (football head coach Mark) Dantonio, and then along the same way basketball has been there,” Koepke said.
The strive to draw in bigger crowds was not a problem for the team ten years ago.
Ten years ago, the championship win was memorable.
“The game happened so quickly, we got there, we won and it went by so fast,” former assistant captain and defenseman Ethan Graham said. “As far as my athletic career, that was probably the highest in athletics that I could possibly get.”
After the victory, the team paraded down Abbot Road, ending the glorious march at Munn Ice Arena filled with Spartan fans waiting to see their championship team.
“During the victory parade, we went to Munn at the end and walking in there and seeing all the fans, students and non-students sitting in there and it was overwhelming,” Graham said. “That was probably my favorite part.”
Even with such a small fan base, supporters always knew what was going on. The fans never kept quiet and acted as a “sixth man,” Former State News Sports Editor Eric Fish said.
“The fans were always really knowledgeable,” Graham said. “When there was a bad play or a good one, they always knew how to respond to it. When we faced our big rival teams, they always stood behind us and cheered us on.”
The Spartans' weak season was in front of an average crowd of 4,536, according to uscho.com — the lowest attendance in the past ten years. The attendance stayed consistent before taking the dramatic decline.
In 2007 and throughout the years, typically higher attendances would be games against teams like U-M, Western Michigan and other rivals. The way the team plays can have a big affect the attendance as well.
“The team was stringy and the crowds would go based on that,” Fish said.
A revitalized student section
Although Munn can seat up to 6,470 fans, the attendance last season did not see the rest of the 1,934 other seats to pack the stands. The student fans fills up three sections to cheer on their favorite team and unlike football, fans can begin to notice the decline in attendance during games.
“The atmosphere was weird on game days,” Fish said. “After football was over, the game started to sell out regularly, but the Saturday games would be more crowded than the Friday games.”
With a small student section, friendships are bound to be formed. For anthropology sophomore Nicole Moffat, she met one of her best friends at her first game during last year’s season.
“The hockey games are always high energy no matter what is going on,” Moffat said. “It feels more personal, compared to football and basketball.”
For Moffat and many other Spartan hockey fans, bringing their roommates and close friends to the game is a big key to them even if they did not know the sport. One thing she hopes to see more of are victories.
“It gets pretty frustrating going to games and they don’t play well night after night,” Moffat said. “I want the fight song to be true and actually get a victory for MSU.”
Student section leader Sam Finkbeiner is coming up with ideas to help bring in some of her fellow classmates to become more involved with the team. Some of her ideas include some theme nights such as Hawaiian night or NHL jersey night to bring some fun into it.
“I want to help bring in a bigger crowd and get more people involved at the games,” Finkbeiner, a chemical engineering sophomore, said. “If more and more people come to Munn, then they can see the atmosphere at the games and how you can still have a good time there.”
As the new season approaches, Finkbeiner hopes to see new line changes throughout the team and the impact new head coach Danton Cole will make.
“I’m excited for Danton Cole to be the new coach this season,” Finkbeiner said. “I’m interested on what he is going to do differently and who he is going to put on the lines. He can change some things up.”
A new coach, a new team
With new and exciting changes, there are also some tough losses as well.
This summer, junior forward Mason Appleton signed with the Winnipeg Jets after playing two seasons for the Spartans before getting the NHL “itch,” as Koepke described. Last season, he lead the team with 12 goals and 19 assists and tallied 31 points during his sophomore year. Before leaving the team, he was named captain for the upcoming season.
“Losing Mason Appleton takes a big hit away from your offense,” Koepke said. “They need to have players that haven’t really produced a lot just to take the next step and develop.”
It is not uncommon to lose players to the NHL after two years for many college programs. Most players these days dream of going straight into the league rather than going to their dream school to help them win championships. For MSU, most players leave after junior year or play all four years before going into the pros.
“Sometimes, they don’t stop to smell the roses and they don’t stop to smell what is here,” Koepke said. “In three or four years you may get to the pros, but why keep living in the future when you can be living in the present and enjoying the possibly of a national title? I think Danton will try to get the kids from Michigan to bind to that belief and at the same time retaining their ideas of goals of being in the NHL.”
In the spring, the team announced Cole, who is a former Spartan, as the head coach. After playing with MSU, Cole coached for the USA’s Hockey National Team Development Program where he worked with the U-17 and U-18 players for the past seven seasons during his 18 years of coaching.
Some current Spartans who played under Cole include sophomore forward Patrick Khodorenko, senior forward Dylan Pavelek and senior goalie Ed Minney.
“He can bring those tools from all the things he has done to make the team successful based on his experience,” Graham said. “All the former players I talk to are excited about it to see what he can do.”
Cole helped guide two of his teams to International Ice Hockey Federation Men’s Under-18 World Championship gold medals in 2012 and 2014 as well as a bronze medal in 2016.
“I hope Danton Cole will revive the program and make the team better,” Fish said. “With a better team, this can help the program.”
Along with a new coach, eight new freshmen were brought into the mix to improve this team. One of the players, defenseman Tommy Miller, played for the USA National Team Development Program and won a gold medal during the 2017 International Ice Hockey Federation U-18 World Championship with two assists.
“As Michigan State continues to do this, improve each year, that’s when the goals are higher,” Koepke said.
With a head coach as notable as Cole, he can draw more attention to the program for both fans and future recruits. Koepke described the new prospects as hopeful to adding to the team with positions up for grabs under Cole’s structure.
“What this team has to shoot for is just NCAA tournament,” Koepke said. “That I think can happen in the next three or four years.”
As the team continues to improve and work on their skills, the fans can expect more players coming to help the program. As the rebuilding process begins, the fans will have to wait for another National Title in the next few years.
“The fanbase is in for interesting times,” Koepke said. “Fun times are going to come in the next few years, but I think if more fans are coming confident and patient, I think we’ll start seeing more of an increase of fans in the building and the same thing for students.”