By @MichaelCaples –
EAST LANSING – Mark Hollis started his introduction speech for the new Michigan State head coach by talking about the players on the Spartans’ hockey roster.
“Twenty-one days ago I started this process by standing with the team of student-athletes,” the Michigan State athletic director said. “My priority was telling them that my office door was always open. They responded. I asked them what it was that they sought in a head coach. These were some words that they responded with – players coach, approachable, NHL experience, the ability to develop players, a communicator, solid schemes, detail oriented, knows what’s going on in their personal lives, proven winner, straightforward, demanding, a hockey coach. That’s what I heard from Day 1.”
Three weeks later, the Spartans have their new head coach. Hollis officially introduced Danton Cole as the new bench boss of the Spartans’ hockey program today. For Cole, it’s a homecoming on multiple fronts; the Pontiac native was raised in Lansing before playing for the MSU hockey program from 1985-89.
“A lot of emotions stepping back into the MSU locker room,” Cole said during his opening speech. “It was all I could do not to bust out into the fight song right in the middle of the room there. It’s always on my mind.”
He leaves the USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in Plymouth for what has long been his dream job. Cole has been one of two head coaches for the prestigious national program, coaching the Under-17 Team and Under-18 Team, since 2010.
“I did want to thank everyone at USA Hockey – Dave Ogrean, Jim Johannson, Scott Monaghan who I worked with daily and everyone else – it was a wonderful place to work and a wonderful place to be and grow as a coach and just learn a lot about life,” Cole said. “Their wisdom and advice and especially their friendship, just means an awful lot to me.
“It was going to take a really special place for me to leave – a really, really special place – and that’s what I’m looking at here, obviously.”
Cole recalled a conversation with George Sipple of the Detroit Free Press during the start of his coaching career; he was having a great deal of success with the Grand Rapids Griffins in the early 2000s and he was asked if it was his dream to move up to head coach of the Detroit Red Wings.
He said he always had a different place in mind.
“I remember saying, and I’ve said it to a lot of people since, I said that’d be nice, but I would really, really love to go back [to MSU] sometime,” Cole said. “Coach Mason was here, I wasn’t trying to push him out, but I said I’d love to go back there someday. It’s been on my mind. Certainly, the timing has to be right for these things. Sometimes in life it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.”
With the job open after Tom Anastos stepped down on March 21, Cole was long considered the frontrunner. Hollis talked about how it was a national search, but at the end, it came back to Cole – somebody Hollis said he would have hired “on Day 1” of the exploration.
Cole has experience at all levels of the sport; after a professional hockey career that featured a Stanley Cup championship, he has served as a head coach in the AHL, NCAA (with Alabama-Huntsville) and USHL/international play with the NTDP.
With his NTDP coaching experience, he worked with the likes of Dylan Larkin, Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel – to name a few.
“I remember Danton really shaped my two-way game, especially at that level, really prepared me for college hockey,” Larkin told MiHockey during the Red Wings’ locker room clean-out day Tuesday. “And when I went into Michigan, I felt like I was a step ahead of all the other freshmen just because he taught me to play the right way and sometimes it was hard to understand as a 16-year-old kid, but now I look back and really valuable experience playing for him, and he’s a great teacher. He’s very passionate about hockey.”
Spartans forward Patrick Khodorenko played for Cole at the NTDP, and he’s excited to have him back.
“It was great, he’s a great coach,” he said of his time with his former and now future head coach. “He’s obviously proven it – won a couple of world championships with NTDP. I think he’ll be a great fit for us. We need a detail-oriented coach to get ourselves back in the game here. I think it’s great, I’m excited about it. Hopefully we’ll have a great next season.”
Fellow NTDP alum Ed Minney echoed similar sentiments about the new MSU bench boss.
“He’s a pretty intense,” the Spartans’ goaltender said. “He expects everything out of his guys. He expects you to bring it every single day, whether it’s practice or games. He’s very good at developing players and shaping them into roles so that not everyone’s trying to be a superstar out there. I think that will be big for us to come out there and have guys put in different roles. Obviously it’s going to be different because he will have different systems and everything; I think it will be a big change but I think it will be a good one, and it should work out well. We have the talent and everything we need to win games, but just to have the shock should spark something and hopefully we’ll go on a run next season.”
Cole’s work with MSU began at 2:30 p.m. with a team meeting; Minney said it was a simple exchange.
“Basically it was just him introducing himself. I was lucky enough to have played for him but a lot of these guys haven’t even met him before. IT was just him introducing himself and what to expect this year. Just going around the room and getting guys’ names and making sure he’s getting to know everyone – just the basic details. I’m sure we’re going to have more meetings coming up to get more along the lines of what’s going to happen, but for now, it was just basic stuff.”
The new coach said he won’t rush to complete his coaching staff, but he will try to get it done in a timely fashion. He will have to decide on the future of assistants Tom Newton and Kelly Miller, as well as goaltending coach Jason Muzzatti and director of hockey operations Brad Fast.
“I hope to have things settled down here fairly soon, within the next week and a half or so,” Cole said. “I’ll spend some time with guys who are on the staff now and go through some things. I don’t think it will be real long, we’ll move through it, but I don’t want to be in a rush on anything. I want to do things right and the right process.”
Another top priority – obviously – will be MSU’s recruiting. Cole’s previous job will help in that regard.
“Going through the recruits and all that, that will take some time,” Cole said. “I’ll be talking to Coach Newton and spend a little time and see where they’re all at…I’d like to know exactly who’s where and who’s offered. The current guys I know, the incoming guys I know, but after that I need to get a little better read on where all that’s at.
“Coaching in the USHL, being a part of the National Program, it’s a fascinating thing. We start tracking guys, our staff, we’ve got about 10 guys that work for us that are tracking guys at 13 or 14. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s something anybody in the game likes, basketball and football, everything is getting younger, but it is a good process. It’s good to know who the players are and the guys who have a good feel for what’s going on and the connection to it. It used to be midget and junior coaches, and you’re starting a lot younger now. Now it’s bantam coaches and people running those organizations. It’s been good to be part of that process, being at the festivals, seeing where the good players are coming from and knowing what they’re attracted to. I think that gives us a good head start.”