Neil's Notebook: Four Years, Gone in a Blink
Spartan seniors prepare for final games at Munn Arena
March 1, 2013
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
They didn't know what was going through the minds of their senior teammates as they prepared to play in their final regular-season home game at Munn Arena.
Now they understand.
Forfar, Hayes, Grassi and Walrod were warned by their teammates that times goes extremely fast as a college hockey players and urged to cherish each season they had left. They weren't sure what that was about, because they still had three years remaining as Spartans.
Now they know.
It is now time for a group of four bonded seniors to experience the emotions of Senior Night and what will soon be the end of their college careers.
Forfar, Hayes, Grassi and Walrod will be saluted and take the traditional senior skate around Munn Arena on Saturday night in the Spartans final home game of the season. MSU closes out the regular season against Western Michigan at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Senior Night ceremonies are expected to begin at 6:45 p.m.
"I can still remember my freshman year like it was yesterday. Everything is still very clear,'' Grassi said. "It's gone by way too quickly.
"These guys are my best friends. Me, Hayes, Walrod and Forfar have built pretty strong friendships that I can see lasting forever.''
Hayes admits he doesn't want to leave Michigan State.
"I am sad, for sure. It's impossible not to be sad when you have to leave a great university, a great group of guys and a great coaching staff,'' Hayes said. "This university and this team have given me so much. It would be (unusual) if I wasn't sad.''
Actually, this year's senior class is made up of five players. But senior forward Dean Chelios suffered a shoulder injury before the season started and he elected to redshirt, play next season and graduate later.
When the 2013 seniors started as freshmen in the fall of 2009, there were nine members of the class. In fact, all nine played for two seasons.
Then, forward Derek Grant signed with the NHL's Ottawa Senators, defenseman Zach Josepher transferred to Division III Oswego State, and forward Zach Golembiewski was forced to give up hockey because of a back injury. Golembiewski remained in school and helped with different projects with MSU director of hockey operations director Adam Nightingale. Golembiewski will take the senior lap with the rest of his classmates on Saturday as well.
After last season, standout defenseman Torey Krug gave up his senior year to sign with the NHL's Boston Bruins, leaving Forfar, Grassi, Hayes, Walrod and Chelios.
"I can't believe it's been four years. It seems like yesterday I was a wide-eyed, nervous freshman,'' Forfar said. "I'll always remember Welcome Week. That was the best week of my life. And my freshman year was the best year of my life. And then it only got better.''
With two regular-season games with Western Michigan to play and at least two CCHA playoff games remaining, the MSU seniors have records of 63-69-15 overall and 47-51-12 in the CCHA.
They finished in second place in the CCHA as freshmen, dropped to 10th in 2011, climbed to fifth and earned a NCAA tourney spot in 2012. The Spartans need to sweep WMU and get some help this weekend to avoid an 11th-place finish.
Here's a look at each senior, their statistics and what they'll remember about their four-year Spartan careers.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound forward from Darrien, Ill., has played in 148 games and has 18 goals and 20 assists for 38 points. This year, he has four goals and seven assists for 11 points in 34 games.
Forfar, 24, an outstanding student majoring in finance and actively involved in community outreach, was selected as an assistant captain this season.
He said one of the many great memories that "sticks out in his mind" was watching Branden Carney get introduced as honorary starter against Penn State in late January. As a freshman, Carney suffered a serious neck injury in practice early last season and eventually had to give up hockey before playing in a game for the Spartans.
Coach Tom Anastos had Carney dress for a game against PSU and he was introduced to the crowd as a starter, then watched the game from the bench.
"Personally, that was one of the best hockey moments I've ever had. Watching Brandon Carney being able to skate out before the Penn State game was really cool,'' Forfar said. "I know how much he sacrificed to get to Michigan State and to see how big his smile was as he skated out to the blue line is something I don't think any of us will ever forget.''
Forfar said the two years he spent out of high school while playing playing junior hockey in Lincoln, Neb., made him realize how important education was to him.
"I wanted to be an educated person and make educated decisions. Coming to Michigan State allowed me to do that,'' he said. "We have great resources at the (Clara Bell) Smith Academic Center, with all the tutors, and with help from my professors, it allowed me to get to where I am now.
"Professor (Greg) Sabin has been a driving force in helping me plan a career in finance and he's the biggest advocate for me to keep playing hockey as long as possible. He doesn't want me to give it up, but he'll be my support system when I do decide to give it up.''
Forfar will graduate in May with a degree in finance. He said he's not certain about the immediate future - to keep playing hockey in one of hockey's minor leagues or starting a career in business.
"If hockey doesn't work out, I definitely want to do something in the finance world,'' he said. "I just don't know exactly what area that will be.''
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound defenseman from Burnaby, British Columbia, has played in every game this season, the first time he's done that in his four seasons at MSU. Injuries kept him out of the lineup as a freshman and last season as a junior.
A thumb injury forced Grassi to miss the first four games of his freshman season and a concussion the first week of 2012 forced him to miss the rest to the season.
Grassi, who will be 24 next Thursday, has played in 114 games and has three goals and 16 assists for 19 points. This year, he has one goal and two assists for three points in 34 games.
"The memories that stick out are all the Michigan series and definitely the first one in which we swept when we were freshmen,'' Grassi said. "So does winning the Great Lakes Invitational that first year.
"We've had a couple of good years and a couple of not so good years. Knowing that these will be my last two games at Munn, I'm sure I'll be very emotional but I'll leave everything out on the ice.''
In the fall, Grassi was voted by his teammates as an assistant captain. And he's played more this season and made more of an impact than at any time during his stay at MSU.
"It's been awful the way our record has gone,'' he said. "But in getting to play, I've enjoyed the leadership role that I've been put in. I was honored that my peers selected me to be a captain.''
Like his teammates, the bond that developed among the seniors will always be special to Grassi.
"Our class was very close in the dorm and we did everything together,'' he said. "There were no cliques. I still keep in touch with Josepher, Torey Krug, Grant and I see Golem (Golembiewski) around the rink.''
Grassi, who will graduate with a degree in advertising, said he would like to continue playing hockey if the opportunity arises.
"I'll see how the year ends up and see what happens. I would love to go overseas for a little bit,'' he said. "I have a little Italian blood in me and I'd love to go over there and play. That would be pretty cool.''
The 5-11, 191-pound forward from Canton has played in 135 games and has eight goals and 19 assists for 27 points while playing on a checking line and serving as one of the team's top penalty killers. This season, he has three goals and two assists for five points.
"I couldn't have picked a better place to play,'' he said. "I think the character of our group (of seniors) and the selflessness that we've had is something that I'm extremely proud to be a part of.''
Hayes, 24, said his top hockey memories include winning the GLI and sweeping Michigan in an early series as a freshman and playing in the NCAA Tournament last season as a junior -- Anastos' first season as coach.
"Winning the GLI was huge. Being a Michigan kid, I grew up watching great players in that tournament and being on the ice in front of all the fans that were there at Joe Louis Arena and winning it was a dream come true,'' Hayes said. "That's something I'll remember the rest of my life.''
Hayes said he probably didn't know at the time the significance of MSU's 3-2 and 2-0 sweep of U-M in November, 2009.
"I don't know if I realized what that meant to the program. Looking back, I do now. Making it to the NCAA Tournament was an unbelievable experience and one I'll be proud of the rest of my life.
"I'll always remember our win (this season) against Michigan in front of a record crowd. The electricity in the building was unbelievable. The way the fans have rallied around the team this season has been great. We have the highest attendance in the CCHA.''
For Hayes, there are almost as many great memories from being a student at Michigan State.
Asked what the university has given him, Hayes said he "could go on for days.''
"The support staff that the school has provided in terms of academics and athletics is second to none,'' he said. "Melissa Tallant, our academic advisor, has always been there to lead us down the right road. All the tutors and employees at the Smith Center have been great.
"They've done everything in their power to put us in a position to succeed. I can't thank them enough. It's the same for the staff at the rink. The support staff here is great and the coaching staff has done everything they can to put us in a better position to succeed, both in hockey and life after hockey.''
For Hayes, one of the special parts of being an MSU student is great friendships made over four years, especially with his senior teammates.
"They're my best friends. We've been close since our freshman year. We hit it off right away and never had any issues,'' he said. "We do everything together and we've lived together for two years.
"Forfar and I are finance majors and have had many of the same classes and we've been there for each other. Both of us are extremely happy with the degrees that we will walk out of here with. We put in a lot of hard work and we'll be excited to walk in graduation.''
Hayes said he'll be on campus this summer taking two classes, and then he'll think about life after college hockey. It could be pro hockey or the start of his business career.
"I'm not actively looking for a team but it is a goal of every player - in college, in midgets or in youth hockey - that puts on skates to be a pro,'' Hayes said. "I would entertain playing.''
What does Hayes want the 2013 senior class's legacy to be?
"We want our legacy to be that we were high character people and we gave it our all regardless of what we were doing,'' Hayes said. "Whether it was in classroom or on the ice. We haven't been afraid to put the team's needs in front of our personal aspirations.''
The 6-3, 180-pound left wing from Westside, British Columbia, has played in 115 games and has 15 goals and 25 assists for 40 points. This season, he has three goals and eight assists for 11 points in 26 games. Walrod, 24, had his best season as a junior with nine goals and nine assists for 18 points.
"Overall, it's been a great experience. I couldn't have asked for a better place to be,'' he said. "Coming in as a freshman, the guys here were so welcoming. The coaching staff and everyone made it an easy transition, especially being so far from home.
"Then I tried to play that role for the younger guys coming in and helping them out when they needed it. The school has been superb and the hockey has been great, too.''
Walrod's favorite moments are similar to those of his fellow seniors - the GLI title, sweep of Michigan and last year's run to the NCAAs.
"The NCAAs, that's the year I'll remember the most. We were a close group and we jelled at the right time,'' Walrod said. "Making the tournament was a huge step for the program.
"We had a new coach, a new style and a new slate. Guys wanted to prove themselves to the new coaching staff. We battled, pushed each other and that helped get us to the tournament.
"I know we took a step back this year but that's fine. It's a growing process and we have some young guys here and it'll be good in years to come.''
Walrod, an advertising major, hopes to continue playing hockey for a few years before joining the mainstream workforce.
"I still have four classes to complete this summer but if the opportunity is there to keep playing, I'll take it,'' he said. "I'm 24 and it's either battle through playing pro and see how it goes or use my degree.''
Tom Anastos ON THE SENIORS
The Spartans coach said he was impressed with how the seniors embraced change and adapted to the transition of the new coaching staff starting as juniors.
"They understood that there were going to be growing pains, and what I admire about what they have done is that we haven't had any issues with trying to keep our team unified (because of) bad kids causing disruptions,'' Anastos said. "The seniors' work habits in practice are great.
"Every day they're out on the ice early and they stay late. They perform well in school and they're involved in community outreach.
"They haven't been productive as offensive players but they're essential role players.''
Anastos said Hayes and Forfar have grown into team leaders and embraced roles as assistant captains. Grassi, whose status coming into this season was uncertain because of a concussion suffered last year, also found his way into a leadership role.
"Grassi made a significant comeback from his injury. When we came into the season, we had no idea what to expect from him,'' Anastos said. "For whatever reason, he embraced being a senior and took a ginormous step in leadership. He wasn't on our leadership mix at all last year, but he really surfaced and stood out to his teammates.''
Overall, Anastos said he appreciated the seniors' role in helping set a high standard for the program that's trying to return to an elite level.
"As a group, those kids represent a lot of the things we think a college program should represent,'' he said. "They've set a high standard in playing and in their commitment to school.''