March 9, 1998By Nate Ewell
MSU Sports Information
Michigan State was on the verge of capturing the Central Collegiate Hockey Association championship, and Jon Gaskins was watching Michigans game on television.
I was trying to get score updates, Gaskins said, while his teammates were on the ice facing Lake Superior on March 6. I knew they were winning.
This wasnt how it was supposed to be for the senior from Pekin, Ill. He had been a key contributor for the Michigan State team in his four seasons as a defenseman and later a left wing, even though his career had been plagued by injuries. Now he had a badly sprained right knee which ended his collegiate career.
Still watching the Wolverines, hoping for the final score, the phone rang.
It was senior captain Tyler Harlton, still in his equipment in Sault Ste. Marie. The Spartans had beaten Lake Superior, 4-1, and clinched the first banner for the Munn Arena rafters for the members of the senior class.
The message was clear: while Gaskins was no longer on the ice, he was still a member of that senior class.
That was pretty meaningful for me, Gaskins says of the phone call. When they called, it made me think back through my time here. Our senior class has worked for a championship for four years, and it was a great feeling.
After Harlton gave Gaskins the news, he handed the phone over to some other teammates, including fellow seniors Kevin OKeefe and Sean Berens, who Gaskins played on a line with for most of the season.
The threesome, made up entirely of seniors from the state of Illinois, formed the potent Illinois Line for most of the year. Featuring the perpetual-motion style of Berens and a former defenseman in Gaskins, the line matched up against opponents top lines in addition to providing offensive punch.
Berens, who spent a year with Gaskins on the same junior hockey team in Dubuque, Iowa, has become close friends with Gaskins, although it took him a while to get to know his quiet teammate.
When we were in Dubuque, we werent really close, Berens says. Hes a shy kid. As he opens up to you, you can get to know him. Underneath that wall he sort of puts up, hes a real genuine kid. Ive lived with him the last three years, and he has really proven to have a heart of gold.
It is a heart that has been tested during his stay at Michigan State. Gaskins suffered a season-ending knee injury late in his freshman season, after appearing in 28 of 30 games. His sophomore season, Gaskins not only had to recover from his knee problems, but he was diagnosed with having a blood clot problem early in the year.
Midway through the season, he returned to the ice, and was honored by the CCHA coaches with the Terry Flanagan Award for his perseverance.
Gaskins played every game of his junior season, and it looked like he had used up his bad luck.
This fall, he was playing a new position left wing on a line with two close friends. He was enjoying learning the new position with help from Ron Mason and the coaching staff, and enjoying success on the ice as well.
He scored the Spartans key goal in the semifinals of the Great Lakes Invitational, on a breakaway against Michigan Tech. As Gaskins teammates were on the phone with him at Lake Superior, Mason was in the next room recalling that goal as one of the biggest of the year.
In Gaskins 76 consecutive game, a 5-1 win over Michigan at Munn Ice Arena, he took a hip check on his right knee. He lay on the ice while the crowd was still.
I was just hoping that it wasnt going to be season-ending, Gaskins recalls. I wasnt thinking about the pain, just about whether I would be able to play in a Spartan uniform again.
Gaskins, still on crutches, will have surgery soon and will not return to the Michigan State lineup, although the 1994 Edmonton Oiler draft pick will have a chance to play somewhere next season. Nevertheless, he remains a key part of the Spartan team.
Ive been glad to be a part of it, Gaskins says. Coming into the locker room Monday after the guys got back from their road trip, it felt like I was seeing my family after being away for a long time.
Whether on the ice or not, Gaskins has been a big part of that family.