April 10, 2012
It's been 20 years since Dwayne Norris graduated from Michigan State - but the memories and lessons learned during his four years as a student and standout hockey player remain vivid for player known then and even now, as "Newf."
"I remember those days like they were yesterday, and many of the values I took away from Michigan State, I still use today in teaching hockey, raising my kids and in business,'' said Norris, a prolific-scoring Spartan right wing from 1989-1992.
"Every team I played on was different, every team had just a little different chemistry. But we had some great teams and I played with a lot of great players and people.''
Norris, 42, has been involved in hockey in some form -- player, general manager and youth coach - since he started playing when he was about five years old. He played pro hockey for 14 years - four in North America and 11 in Germany - and served as a general manager in Germany for three years. He's now involved in coaching two of his three sons' teams in Metro Detroit.
The St. John's, Newfoundland, native - which is where the "Newf" nickname comes from -- is honored tonight with the 2012 MSU Distinguished Alumnus Award.
"I'm very excited to be back in the area and closer to Michigan State,'' said Norris, who lives in Oxford, just north of Auburn Hills, with his wife Traci, also an MSU graduate, and their three sons, Coale, 14; Josh, 12, and Dalton, 10.
"We've been in Europe a long time and I wasn't connected to Michigan State as I would have liked. I heard about things through friends and e-mails but never got the opportunity to take part in many events, like tailgating, football games and going to hockey games.
"When we got back (in 2010), one of the first things I wanted to do was to get connected. Michigan State, through all the people I've met and things I learned, is what's allowed me to go on to have a successful career.''
In four years at MSU, Norris' teams compiled a brilliant 115-44-17 record, played in two Frozen Fours, won two CCHA regular-season titles and two league playoff championships.
Norris had 105 goals and 113 assists for 218 points. He ranks 7th in career goals and is tied for 7th with Rem Murray in career points. In 1992, Norris had 44 goals and 83 points, won the CCHA Player of the Year Award, and was selected to the All-CCHA First Team and was also a First Team All-America pick.
Norris won a gold medal while playing for Canada in the 1990 World Junior Championships and earned a silver medal for Canada in the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.
"Dwayne Norris was a character player and person. He brought it every night,'' said Ron Mason, Norris' coach at MSU. "He was one of the best skaters we've ever had.
"He was a great puckhandler, he could kill penalties, and you could put him on any line and he'd make it better. He's one of those players every coach loves.
"In today's world, he would be in the NHL. But size kept him out. He had great feet, hands and skills.''
Norris played at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds and was hampered by the obstruction issues - hooking, holding and interference - that were a big part of the NHL in the 1990. He really never had a good chance to prove he could play in the NHL when he was with the Quebec Nordiques and Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
Over four seasons after leaving MSU, Norris played in 20 NHL games. He had two goals and six points.
"I had contract problems my first year in Quebec. I was frustrated by playing with a deep, talented organization,'' Norris said. "On the right side, they had Scott Young, Adam Deadmarsh, Owen Nolan and Valeri Kamensky.
"In 1996-97, Anaheim picked me up with a two-year contract. I figured I'd get in a bunch of games with the Ducks. But I got into fewer games with Anaheim than Quebec.''
In three of his four minor league seasons, Norris scored 25, 30 and 31 goals for three American Hockey League teams.
After four years trying to make the NHL, Norris figured, because of his size and lack of opportunity, his odds of reaching the NHL weren't very good. So he looked elsewhere.
"I felt I needed to take control of my situation and maybe go play in Europe. I planned on going for five years, starting in 1997,'' he said. "My wife and I had a five-year plan. I ended up playing for 11 years and staying for 14.
"I talked to Ron (Mason) a lot about it. Timing is everything and I don't begrudge anything. I got a chance to play in college, the Olympics, in the pros in North America and then won (two) championships in Europe and it was very enjoyable.''
While playing in his final season with the Frankfort Lions of the German league in 2007, and with his bags packed to return to the U.S., Norris was offered the job as the Lions' general manager. He accepted and stayed for three seasons.
In 2010, the Norris family decided it was best to return to North America. So they settled in the northern Detroit suburbs.
"My oldest boy was getting ready for high school and it was no longer about me and my career,'' he said. "I wanted to give my kids the opportunity to go U.S. schools and get involved in playing hockey here. It's a lot better here than in Germany.''
Norris' main job is as a sales representative for Ricoh, a world-wide office technology company. Soon after settling in Oxford, he started coaching his kids' teams and then became director of the Oakland Junior Grizzlies program.
Once again, Norris was back in hockey, serving as head coach for Josh's 1999 Grizzlies AAA bantam major team and as an assistant for Coale's 1997 Grizzlies U14 AAA travel club.
"My wife must be out of her mind thinking that we're still involved in hockey,'' Norris said with a laugh. "It's a great game and it's given me everything that I have in my life.
"Three weeks ago, all three of my boys won state championships on the same day. That was incredible. I don't know if that's ever been done.''
Norris left Newfoundland, the most eastern Canadian province, when he was 14 years old to go to school and play hockey at one of the premier prep schools in Canada - Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox, Saskatchewan.
That's where MSU found Norris, former Spartan and NHL standout forward Rod Brind'Amour and defenseman Joby Messier, an All-American in 1992. All three came to MSU in 1998-99. Former NHL goaltender Curtis Joseph, who played at Wisconsin, was a teammate of the future Spartan trio.
"I was fortunate to go to a high school that had a lot of the same values Ron Mason did at Michigan State,'' Norris said. "My coach at Notre Dame was Barry MacKenzie and the program had the ideology of how to play hockey, the commitment and work ethic that goes with it and the importance of being a good citizen.
"And then it was Ron Mason and (assistant coaches) Newell Brown, Tom Newton and Tom Anastos who reinforced that exact mentality at MSU. It hit home after a couple of years, and in a lot of ways, I've built my life around it.
"I could spend hours talking about what the program at Michigan State has meant to me.''
-- Neil Koepke, who covered Spartan hockey for the Lansing State Journal for 25 seasons, now writes for the official Michigan State website, www.msuspartans.com. His commentary, "Neil's Notebook" features several pieces per week.