Just a few weeks after Danton Cole was relieved of his duties, Michigan State hockey found its new head coach: Adam Nightingale.
It was the obvious pick. Nightingale’s name was floated around almost immediately after Cole was let go. He has an impressive resume, with experience in Team U.S.A.'s developmental program and the National Hockey League.
And, of course, he is a Michigan State alumni.
At most universities, a newly-hired coach with a history at the school is immediately shown a bit more love. However, at Michigan State, alum is almost a dirty word around the hockey program.
MSU hockey’s last two head coaches, Tom Anastos and Danton Cole, were former players. And while they certainly improved aspects of the experience at Michigan State (namely, the massive renovations of Munn Ice Arena), in the end, both regimes failed to do what they were hired to do: win hockey games. In fact, as the Big Ten has become perhaps the strongest hockey conference in the nation, Michigan State has turned into a perpetual bottom-feeder.
Sure, Nightingale is an alum. But don’t let his status as a former player cloud your judgment. Simply put, Nightingale is not a Danton Cole or Tom Anastos-type coach. And he was not hired simply to check the “former alum” box.
“The next head coach did not need any Spartan ties," Michigan State Athletic Director Alan Haller said at Nightingale’s opening press conference. "They just wanted the best person to lead our team.”
Nightingale reaffirmed this sentiment in his opening speech.
“You could tell it was a very thorough process,” Nightingale said. “I said to them, ‘If I’m here because I’m an alum, I don’t want the job.”
Nightingale was not hired because he "bleeds green." He was hired because of his coaching track record and his beliefs about what a modern program in college hockey should strive to be.
While he doesn’t have any experience as a head coach in the NCAA, Nightingale’s hockey resume is extremely relevant in college hockey.
As head coach of the U.S. National U18 team, he consistently worked with some of the best young players in the nation. At Shattuck St. Mary’s, one of the best hockey prep schools in the United States, an essential function of Nightingale's job was developing and molding young talent. He also has a few years of experience in the NHL as a video coach, working with the Buffalo Sabres and the Detroit Red Wings.
However, perhaps more important than Nightingale’s experience is what he wants MSU hockey's foundation to be. In his introductory speech, he honed in on recruiting and player development as two of the most important aspects of building a special hockey program.
"We're going after the best players. We are not taking a backseat to anyone," Nightingale said. "This is a spot where I want every guy we recruit to truly believe and want to play in the National Hockey League."
Simply put, it has been a while since the Spartans have been chock-full of NHL talent, Nightingale wants to change that. However, It is not enough to just recruit great players, MSU will need to turn that raw skill into refined skill.
"If you want to come to Michigan State, this is a place that develops you for the National Hockey League," Nightingale said.
Just look at the program down the road. While the University of Michigan has not quite secured a national title, the program has become one of the best in the nation, consistently competing in both the Big Ten and the NCAA Tournament. It certainly has nothing to do with the culture Mel Pearson built–the Wolverines consistently recruit the best young hockey players in the nation, true NHL caliber talent.
This season, Michigan had four of the top five picks in the 2021 NHL Draft. If you look at the programs currently at the top of the NCAA, the story is the same. Recruiting is essential.
Nightingale knows that, in today’s game, you need the best players in the nation to build a special program.
Of course, there was also some coach-speak about building a culture and connecting with alums at the press conference, but those have not been the primary areas of concern at MSU in recent years.
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Nightingale has connections in youth hockey and wants recruiting to be the life-blood of the program. He knows what it takes to win in modern college hockey. Nightingale is more than just a Michigan State alum, he’s a modern hockey coach.
Knowing is just half the battle–Nightingale certainly has his work cut out for him in the coming years. Recruiting is not easy, especially when you are competing with some of the best of the best. However, with a clear vision and a solid resume, the 42-year-old Michigan native might be the man that finally turns MSU’s program around.
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