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In an extremely abnormal season, MSU hockey seniors honored in one of few last home games

February 28, 2021
Michigan State hockey seniors pose for a photo on senior night after their loss to Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish shutout the Spartans 2-0 on Feb. 27, 2021.
Michigan State hockey seniors pose for a photo on senior night after their loss to Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish shutout the Spartans 2-0 on Feb. 27, 2021. —
Photo by Lauren DeMay | The State News

Going back to the beginning of the school year, there were many uncertainties about what the college hockey season would look like. 

At the time, Big Ten football was not being played while other conferences such as the Southeastern Conference were playing. There was a serious threat that there would be no Big Ten sports played at all in the 2020-21 school year. 

But after watching other conferences play, the Big Ten figured out they could make a COVID-19 season work. With reliable and daily testing, well-thought-out safety protocols, as well as some levels of discipline from players, coaches and staff, Big Ten athletics were suddenly back on the map. 

There have been bumps in the road, but with the Big Ten hockey season nearing its end, the jigsaw puzzle of a season unlike any other looks close to being a complete success. 

A season was wanted by everyone – both players, coaches and fans. But for this year’s seniors, being able to have that last year to take everything in that comes with college hockey was absolutely necessary. 

Last season did not end the way the Spartans would have hoped after a first-round exit in the Big Ten Tournament, but in a way, there were almost some good aspects of it, at least for last year’s seniors. They had the opportunity to take it all in, their last game ever of college hockey. Some players on other teams did not get that chance when the conference tournament was canceled in the semi-final round on March 14 

This year MSU hockey’s seven seniors, Mitchell Lewandowski, Tommy Apap, Tommy Miller, Gianluca Esteves, Jake Smith, Austin Kamer and Brody Stevens, along with graduate student Charlie Combs, were honored Saturday night following a 2-0 loss to Notre Dame, in a way never done before with pandemic based precautions.

Athletes took pictures with their family members through the glass, there was no large group photo, they still kissed the Spartan logo on center ice, just at a socially distant length from each other. The ceremony itself was scheduled for Saturday despite there still being three more scheduled home games, just in case those three were to be canceled. 

Perhaps the most touching moment though came when Esteves’ name was announced. The Winnipeg, Manitoba native did not have any family members in attendance, so that was when the Spartan family stepped in. With nobody to take a picture with, fellow Spartan moms rushed down to the first row of seats to take a picture with Esteves. 

Random, spontaneous acts like that go to show how hockey is so much more than a game. It is a community, a friendship, a family. It is a do anything for each other mentality. 

“It's been a great time here," Miller said after Friday’s game. "Lots of memories on the ice and off the ice just with the bond and the friendships that I have created over these last four years. I have seen and played with a lot of guys, and I still keep in touch with a lot of them and I will keep in touch with all of them, especially the guys in my class. It's the friendships that will last a lifetime. It's hard to say that you might not be playing in the green and white. I'm grateful every game that I get to put on that jersey, and like I said it's just about those friendships and those memories that you have here which makes it so important to your heart.”

For head coach Danton Cole, this class is extra special compared to those he has sent off previously. He did not recruit these seniors, but because they too were in their first year at Michigan State when Cole took over as head coach in 2017, they have a special place in Cole’s heart. 

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“These guys bought in as a freshman class," Cole said. "They worked extremely hard. They are very close. ... I told them after the game, ‘Hey, we got some more games to play this year regardless where that ends up.’ What they've left here is a pretty good legacy and they've taught the young guys, those three classes behind them, those guys are representative of what they are and it's up to them to carry it on. I know talking to coach Mason a long time ago, when you get things like that where everybody understands what it means to be a Spartan in how you behave and how you act and how hard you work and how you sacrifice for each other, then you go from just having a hockey team at a university to having a program.”

Apap may not have had much of a choice as to where he was playing college hockey because of his dad, but the gratefulness is still there. 

“Being a Spartan has been everything to me," Apap said after the ceremony. "My dad went here and all of his family. I grew up a Spartan, just because he almost brainwashed me into it, and I am so glad he did honestly. It has been an unbelievable experience since I have been here from the first day we got on campus until now.”

And for guys like Esteves, Smith, Stevens and Kamer they may not have lit up the score sheet in their Spartan tenure, but their impact whether it was on the ice or off the ice is still there. They may not be a Lewandowski, who is one point away from reaching 100 career points, but their legacies are equally important to the program. 

Even for Combs, who has played just one season in East Lansing after transferring to MSU from Bemidji State before the season started, has made his mark as a goal scorer as well as a scrappy, physical player standing at just five-foot-six.

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In terms of simply winning games, this senior class may wish it would have gone a little bit better after what will now be four straight-losing seasons. The season is not yet over though, and they one last chance to leave another positive mark on the program. 

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“We have had our ups and we have had our downs for sure," Apap said. "We are struggling to score and to win games, but our season is not over. It was senior night, but we are not done. We are not quitting on the season. I love our group of guys, and I have loved our group of guys all four years, so I gotta say I am pretty lucky to be a Spartan.”

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