Feb. 16, 2012
By Neil Koepke; MSUSpartans.com staff writer
No matter what happens the rest of the season, Michigan State coach Tom Anastos will have a special place in his heart for a special, resilient nine-player senior class.
Without the seniors, Anastos says, the Spartans would not be nearly as competitive and not having the success they're having in their final season at MSU and in Anastos' first.
"These guys will have a unique spot in my heart forever, regardless of what we bring to the program in the future,'' Anastos said.
The seniors, who will play in their last regular-season homes games on Friday and Saturday against Alaska, include goaltender Drew Palmisano, defensemen A.J. Sturges, Brock Shelgren, Tim Buttery, and Matt Crandell and forwards Trevor Nill, Daultan Leveille, Mike Merrifield and Brett Perlini. Sturges is a fifth-year senior
"Being that this was my first team and knowing the challenges we were facing in making the transition to a new coach and to what we were trying to establish, it would have been easy for the guys to say, `I'll just bide my time and move on,' `' Anastos said.
"These guys made an incredible, wholehearted commitment to be successful. I couldn't ask for any more than these guys have been willing to give.''
Wild Ride There have not been many seniors classes at MSU that have experienced more drama, disappointment, frustration and uncertainty than the class of 2012.
Fortunately, this year's seniors, and for sure with help from the underclassmen, have wiped away some of the bad memories of the past three years and have blossomed in their final season.
The Spartans, with a new coaching staff and a different style but with most of the same players back from last year, have been one of college hockey's best, feel-good stories of 2011-12.
MSU has been extremely competitive and entertaining all season. The Spartans have been ranked in the top 20 for most of the year, have had some impressive victories, are in position to land a high finish in the CCHA and have a shot at the NCAA Tournament.
"Everyone has had their ups and downs but we decided to stay positive and work through it,'' said Perlini, 21, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound center from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. "To get to where we are now is an unbelievable feeling. And to look back and see what we've overcome has been great.''
The Spartans, with four games left in the regular season, head into the Alaska series with records of 16-12-4 overall and 11-10-3 in the CCHA, which is tied for fifth with Lake Superior State. MSU is six points behind second-place Western Michigan, three in back of third-place Michigan and one point away from fourth-place Ohio State, which is idle this weekend.
"We've always had a lot of pride in being Spartans . It's been a roller coaster ride but now we want to end it on a good note," said Palmisano, a 5-foot-10, 160-pounder from Ann Arbor. "I think the best part of hockey is your teammates. The four years here I've been lucky to have so many people who I've become best friends with and they've been there to come to the rink with, have fun with, and be a support system to deal with everything.''
As freshmen, MSU was in a rebuilding season due to the significant losses: five to graduation from the 2007-08 team, and three players leaving the program early. Early on, a rash of key injuries and some suspensions led to a very thin roster with little varsity experience; the end result was a 10-23-5 record, the program's worst since 1976-77.
As sophomores, the Spartans were solid early and struggled late. They finished second in the CCHA and were 19-13-6 overall, but MSU was upset in the second round of the playoffs by Michigan and lost its chance to make the NCAA Tournament.
There were many distractions during their junior season and more ups and downs led to a 10th-place finish in the CCHA and an overall record below .500 (15-19-5) for the second time in three years. The Spartans headed to Alaska - their second trip to the 49th state in a three-week span - before falling in a pair of tough overtime decisions. In three seasons, MSU has not won a CCHA playoff game and have never played in the CCHA Championship in Detroit.
Facing a New Era
In late January, 2011, Spartan coach Rick Comley announced he was stepping down after the season, leading to several months of speculation about the Spartans' new coach. On March 23, MSU director of athletics Mark Hollis shocked the college hockey world by announcing the hiring of Anastos as the Spartans new coach. Anastos, a former MSU player and a 1985 graduate, had been CCHA commissioner for 13 years.
"As seniors, we've been through a lot together, and at the start of the season, we didn't know what to expect with Coach Anastos and a new staff,'' said Merrifield, 22, a 5-foot-9, 190-pound junior from Beverly Hills, a Detroit suburb.
"It's never easy playing for someone new. But all of us embraced it and we really wanted to make our senior year the best that we could possibly make it. It's been fun. We're all making a contributions, we competing hard we have a chance to win every night.''
Right after Anastos was hired, he met with the team and told the players something that were the best words he perhaps could have uttered to settle early nerves. It set the tone for the players, who eagerly bought into what the coaches were planning.
"Coach sat us down and came in and shared that sometimes, new coaches come into a program and say that once they get `their guys' in place, things will turn around. He kind of threw that out the window and said `You guys are my guys so let's make a run at it,''' said Shelgren, a 5-foot-11, 170-pound defenseman from Chicago. "That really put things in perspective, showing that he believed in us. We worked hard coming into the season because nobody knew where they stood. We had to earn playing time by working hard in practice and having success.''
Said Perlini, "The coaches have made it really easy. They came in with the mindset that they really wanted to win now, and everyone on the team wanted to win and be the best we could. The coaching staff did a tremendous job of developing us and making us stick together and it's produced a great product.''
Without the seniors buying into the rigorous practices, off-ice conditioning, the aggressive new system and other changes, team chemistry and the atmosphere around the rink might be vastly different.
"You certainly would have had a different set of challenges,'' Anastos admits. "People have asked me what's been my biggest surprise and that's been it - that everyone has embraced the change. I've watched other people go through changes, whether it's in sports or business, and sometimes it's very painful. It could have been in our case, with the number of seniors.''
The seniors also showcased that they were good leaders. They competed hard in practice every day, and that carried over to the games, and the rest of the team followed. The coaches emphasized creativity and responsibility, and not to dwell on mistakes. The seniors improved and made an impact, the team relaxed, played with confidence and had fun.
Their Final Chapter
Perlini is the highest-scoring senior with eight goals and 17 assists for 25 points in 32 games. Merrifield, despite missing eight games due to injuries, still leads MSU in goals with 11, and has five assists for 16 points.
Leveille, 21, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound center from St. Catharines, Ontario, has three goals and six assists for nine points in 22 games, while Nill has two goals and three assists for five points in 32 games.
Nill is a two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection and last season was a Hockey Humanitarian Award finalist and winner of the CCHA's Ilitch Humanitarian Award.
"The thing I'm going to miss most are the people that I've met and the little experiences with many of those people,'' said Nill, 22, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound right wing from Novi. "Like sitting in the top row of (Spartan Stadium) and watching the Notre Dame game (in 2010) and seeing the `Little Giants' play.
"We've been through a lot and seemed to bond together in a way that we'll stay connected. These guys who I've been with the last four years will be around for the rest of my life.''
Palmisano has played in 14 games and has a 2.77 goals-against average and .914 save percentage. He's 5-6-3 overall this year and 40-33-13 in his career with five shutouts.
"I'll always remember moving into the dorms and all the awkward moments at first with our freshmen class, and not realizing how well I was going to get to know them in the next two or three weeks,'' Palmisano said.
On defense, Shelgren and Crandell have both stepped up their offensive game with career highs in points and have been strong defensively. Crandell, who teams with Buttery, has three goals and 12 assists for 15 points. He's the second-highest scoring defenseman behind junior standout Torey Krug (10-18-28).
"We've enjoyed (coach Anastos) coming in. We're upbeat, we have a good work ethic and we want to push the program in the right direction,'' said Crandell, a 5-10, 195-pounder from St. Cloud, Minn. "I've loved being part of coach's first class that gets it going again.''
Shelgren, who partners with Krug, has three goals and 10 assists for 13 points. Buttery, a 5-foot-11, 180-pounder from Northville, has two goals and four assists for six points.
Crandell, Buttery and Shelgren were earned Academic All-Big Ten honors as sophomore and juniors.
Sturges has played in 12 games this season after appearing in only six over the last four seasons. He scored the second goal of his career two weeks ago at Ohio State.
"I've always wanted to have a good attitude about being at the rink. It wasn't about playing time or points, it was about being a positive person and contributing in practice,'' said Sturges, a 6-foot-4, 190-pounder from Madison, Wis. "It's interesting now that I'm in the lineup and playing more, I haven't changed my approach.
"I've been able to keep that consistent. It's the same process, whether I'm in the lineup or out. I think that has helped me through some low times and brought me to a much better place.''
As a sophomore, Sturges suffered a serious head injury after a a well-publicized altercation involving hockey and football players in an off-ice incident. He had a fractured skull, bleeding on the brain, concussion symptoms and missed the entire 2008-09 season. He rejoined the team the next season but didn't play in any games in 2009-10, and appeared in only one last year.
"I never thought that I wouldn't come out of it. I just wondered when,'' said Sturges, an Academic All-Big Ten selection as a junior. "It was such a weird injury. Some days, you feel all right and then you hit the wall and you're done. I stuck with it and did a little more and more because there was no pressure to get back that season.
"The next year, it was fun to come back and be part of the team again. That showed me how much hockey meant to me - even though I practiced a lot more than I played. I enjoy the game, love the fun we have here and I get to play with a great group of guys.''
Sturges is 16th member of his family to attend Michigan State, including grandparents and great grandparents. His parents, John and Maggie, met at MSU. John was a standout Spartan forward under Coach Amo Bessone from 1972-76. Sturges' brother, Dan, played at MSU from 2006-2009.
"I got to play two years with my brother and wear my dad's number (15). That's something not a lot of people get to experience,'' he said.
Sturges won't be playing for MSU next year but he'll still be on campus. After getting his degree in psychology, he'll continue work on a master's degree in kinesiology and sports psychology.
"My experience here hasn't been all about hockey. It's been about getting an education and finding my path,'' he said. "This has been a great place to do that.''
Hello, Goodbye Anastos said he's not only impressed with how the seniors have responded on the ice but also how they've represented the program in the classroom and the university in the community.
"I wish I had more time with them,'' he said. "I'll never forget what these guys have done in a time of transition and the commitment they made. We're getting good results right now and the foundation they're laying is going to get great results in the future.
"But I'm so much in the `now.' I want them to have a great experience while they're still here and they're positioning themselves to do that.
"They're very active in the community and not just participating. They've taken a leadership role with community outreach. And they do very well in school. They're developing into great people, something Michigan State is going to feel proud about forever.''