When reflecting on Michigan State hockey’s 2022-23 season, it's easy to attribute a large part of the success to head coach Adam Nightingale. Hired last May to return to his alma mater and lead the hockey team that raised him, Nightingale made significant strides in his first year behind the bench.
Although Nightingale was in the spotlight often, he was not the sole contributor in MSU’s head-turning season.
The rest of his coaching and support staff were working behind the scenes to help Spartan hockey reach its most wins since the 2011-12 season, including the program’s first ever Big Ten Tournament victory.
Two key members of the team are Director of Player Development Brad Fast and Director of Hockey Strategy, Video and Analytics Dan Sturges. Like Nightingale, Fast and Sturges are former MSU hockey players.
MSU roots run deep
While they never appeared in a game with each other, Fast, Sturges and Nightingale all crossed paths during their time as players. They knew each other well and kept in touch over the years, which ultimately led them all back to Michigan State.
Fast, a British Columbia native, was a defenseman for the Spartans from 1999-2003. He helped lead MSU to the Frozen Four in 2001 and served as team captain during his senior season.
“When I came to Michigan State first on a visit to learn more about this place and then eventually to play here, it was because this is a great school and a great hockey program,” Fast said. “What I remember about playing here was how fun it was to play in front of a sold-out crowd, which we have now again, which is awesome.”
While he was at MSU, Fast met his wife, Lindsay, who works for the hockey staff as the team’s executive secretary. The couple returned to East Lansing in 2011 where they have been since, raising their family. Fast did a stint as director of hockey operations from 2015-19 before leaving and then returning to MSU last year.
Sturges is a fifth generation Spartan from Wisconsin who played for the Spartans from 2005-2009. A forward all four seasons, he was a member of the 2007 national championship team.
Similar to Fast, Sturges met his wife Becky at MSU while she was a member of the field hockey team. Sturges returned to MSU in 2019, joining the staff as the director of hockey operations and staying through the coaching change last spring.
“My dad played hockey here as well, so, all my life I wanted to come here to school, but also play hockey here,” Sturges said. “(I was) fortunate to have the opportunity to do that. … When you get to this level, it's really challenging to make it here, but then also figure out how to integrate into a team and the group of guys that I was here with, I'm still really good friends with almost all of them to this day. So, I think my path was a little bit different in coming here. But once I was here, it was just a blast.”
Nightingale’s tenure with the Spartans was sandwiched between Fast and Sturges’ from 2003-2005.
Due to old NCAA transfer rules, Nightingale had to sit out during Brad’s senior season, but the duo were teammates. Halfway through Nightingale’s senior year, Sturges came to MSU from the junior league, although he was ineligible to play at first after redshirting.
Fast and Sturges' roles with the team
As the director of hockey strategy, video and analytics, Sturges wears many different hats.
“Whatever the coaches need in terms of in-game video or practice video and then any reports or stats that coincide with things that they might be focusing on or need postgame, and making sure that I post video nationally for other teams to download,” Sturges said. “Then, anything that the players might need from what we're doing in-game gets sent out just over the cloud.”
While the rest of the coaches tend to focus on the team as a whole, Fast said he is responsible for developing each player individually to ensure their growth coincides with the program's growth.
“We'll put together an individual player development plan for all of our players, go through it with the other coaches and with the individuals involved too, so that they have goals they want to hit and achieve to be the best that they can be,” Fast said. “So that we can push guys onto the next level and achieve the highest that we possibly can here at Michigan State.”
How the pair works together to make an impact
Last season, NCAA rules stated Division I ice hockey teams could only have three full-time coaches, so, Nightingale said that put some limits on how Fast and Sturges could help. Next season, the number can increase to four, thanks to a vote by the D1 council earlier this year.
“(Dan) streamlines stuff to make sure the videos get to coaches and make sure that everything is working correctly, and so that guys can work efficiently,” Nightingale said.
“Brad … wasn't allowed to recruit this year, so the advantage of that, he was here every day and he was with our guys doing the individual player development,” Nightingale said. “I think that really helped our guys kind of zero in the areas both they're great at and areas they need to continue to work on. I think seeing some of these guys, the way they produced and improved, that's definitely I believe a product of our coaching staff and those guys do a great job.”
If he is not on the bench with the three main coaches, Fast often sits next to Sturges during games. The pair even share an office inside Munn Ice Arena.
Sturges said Fast is a huge reason why he is at Michigan State.
“I’ve learned a ton from him in short period of time I had before I switched roles, and now that he’s back, it’s fun because we sit next to each other at games,” Sturges said. “We get to talk shop a lot … so anything that’s going on or questions that we have, it’s just every day is a learning experience. It’s really fun.”
The decision to hire Sturges and Fast
When putting together his coaching staff last year, Nightingale was looking for a variety of experience, including candidates who were already working in college hockey. Shortly after he got the job, Nightingale asked Sturges to remain at MSU.
“Speaking to him, you can tell that he's passionate about his job,” Nightingale said. “I know he's high character and he was excited about a chance to stay and work.”
As for the associate head coach and assistant coach, Nightingale found Jared DeMichiel and Mike Towns to fill those roles, respectively, due to their experience in college hockey and recruiting. But he still needed a few more support staff – which is where Fast came in.
“Both (DeMichiel and Towns) really wanted Brad to be a part of it,” Nightingale said. “So, we found a way to make him work here as a Director of Player Development, and thankful we got him.”
Nightingale said having staff members with MSU roots gives the program an advantage.
“I do think having guys on staff that lived what our guys are living is important,” Nightingale said. “Also, (guys) that are connected within the athletic department can help kind of make sure that we know how everything operates.”
Managing pressure and what the job means to them
As former players of Spartan hockey, Fast said there is outside pressure to produce positive results because they know the program better than an external hire would.
“I think that’s pretty fair to say that … there is a lot of pressure,” Fast said. “That's the great part about being in athletics, and then being part of a story program, a historic hockey program like Michigan State.”
Despite the outside noise, Fast said the staff receives support from their former teammates and other alumni who are following the team closely.
“They want us to do well, and we want to make them proud … as much as we want for the guys in the room too,” Fast said. “We want to … show that we're putting in everything we have to win and to make this program better, and really, to leave this in a better place than when we got here.”
Sturges added working for the team as an alumni of the program is “personal” and comes with a sense of pride.
“The years I spent away from here, I’d always be checking box scores and seeing how they’re doing,” Sturges said. “So, to be back here working for the team that you have a ton of passion for is special. It’s a special place, and I think it’s great to have other alumni a part of it because it means a lot.”