Neil’s Notebook: Cole Back Home With His Dream Job
Neil Koepke on the hiring of Danton Cole as MSU’s new head coach.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING – Danton Cole has his share of different hockey coaching jobs.
There have been stops in Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Grand Rapids again, Fraser, Bowling Green, Ohio, Huntsville, Alabama, and Ann Arbor. Now, he has his dream job:
Head coach, Michigan State University – his alma mater.
Cole, 50, who was born in Pontiac and grew up in Lansing, was named the Spartans’ new coach at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon at the Huntington Club at Munn Arena.
Three years into his coaching career, it was suggested by a member of the media that maybe someday Cole would be coaching the Red Wings.
“I remember saying that would be nice but I really, really would love to go back to Michigan State someday, and it’s been on my mind,’’ said Cole, who played for the Spartans from 1985-89 and won an NCAA title with MSU in 1986. “Certainly, the timing has to be right and sometimes in life it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.’’
Six years ago, Cole was a prominent candidate for MSU’s coaching job. He didn’t get it. He continued to coach at the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor and now Plymouth.
This time, the timing was right.
“I’m honored to have the opportunity to represent Michigan State University and Spartan hockey. I wasn’t sure the timing would ever work out, but I’m fortunate,’’ said Cole, a graduate of Waverly High School. “My mom and dad both went to Michigan State. I didn’t grow up around MSU, I grew up at MSU. It has been an enormous part of my life.
“Once I got into coaching it didn’t take long for me to realize I wanted to get back on campus and try to accomplish what we did when I was playing for the legendary Ron Mason.’’
In four seasons, Cole played in three Frozen Fours (1986, 1987 and 1989), won two CCHA regular-season titles (1986, 1989) and two CCHA playoff championships (1987, 1989).
Cole was an excellent penalty killer for all four seasons. He was used as a strong two-way forward during his first two years and then emerged as a top scorer as a junior and senior. In a MSU record-tying 180 games played, Cole scored 69 goals, had 94 assists for 163 points. As a senior, he had 29 goals and 62 points. During his stay at MSU, Cole’s teams compiled a record of 131-44-8 – that’s 87 games over .500.
Following a 10-year pro career, including seven seasons in the NHL with stops in Winnipeg, Tampa Bay, New Jersey (where he won a Stanley Cup), with the New York Islanders and Chicago, Cole ended his playing career with the Grand Rapids Griffins and got into coaching. He’s coached on all levels – pro, college, junior and in international competition.
And now a big challenge awaits – getting the Michigan State program back into the national spotlight. That means winning Big Ten titles, NCAA regional games and being in position to do what Cole helped the Spartans do in 1986 – reign as national champions.
It’ll take some time and there might be some pain along the way, but Cole is confident that he and his staff can recruit top players, develop them on and off the ice and make Michigan State an elite program.
“Absolutely. The things kids are looking for is they want a place to come and develop on and off the ice and become NHL players,’’ he said. “You bring (elite) kids in and you get a certain momentum and those kids talk. They’ll say ‘That is a good place to develop. Whether it’s for one, two, three or four years, you’re going to go in there and they’re going to maximize your development.’
“We can be that type of program. I have a good idea what it takes and the guys that have played for me have done pretty well in the NHL. They’re prepared mentally and physically and we have to continue that.’’
With the NTDP, Cole has coached more than 80 players who have made it to the NHL.
“I think things are in place here. I don’t think we have to reinvent the wheel. We’re working on some things and they’re going to get done and that will help,’’ Cole said of MSU’s fundraising effort to improve the infrastructure at Munn Arena.
The new Spartans coach said he has a four-part plan to be implemented over the next 12 months.
“It starts with maintaining and building on the culture, on the type of program that we want to have here, about excellence,’’ he said. “I like (athletic director) Mark Hollis’ comment on energy and excitement and that’s what MSU hockey should be.
“It should bring that to the university and it should be something that is one of the front porches, something people want to be part of. Everybody wants to be part of something great and that’s what Michigan State hockey is.
“Secondly, we will identify, recruit and sign elite players to come here and join the guys already here, and the pressure will be on them to get that momentum going and teach those young guys when they come in so they can take over for them.’’
Cole’s third point on his immediate plan is “to engage the community, the students and fans” and make Munn Arena a snake-pit, like it was in 1980s and 1990s.
“It’s got to be a hard place (for visiting teams) to come in and win. You want it to be on the other team’s pre-scout that when they come and play at Munn Arena, they’d better be ready,’’ he said. “The crowd is going to be on them. It’s going to be loud. That’s how Munn was.’’
And No. 4 on Cole’s list is improving Munn Arena, especially for the players and staff.
“I love coming here and walking around, and whenever the kids and I would visit, (it was great) to see the changes on the concourse and the new lighting and new boards and ice system,’’ he said. “MSU has put a lot into this and they’ll continue to put a lot in.
“I was talking with Chuck Sleeper (executive associate athletic director for development) about the Spartan Fund project. That’s really important and a vision that we need to get done.’’
Cole said one of his first priorities is to assemble his coaching staff. He said he’d like to have one coach devote most of his time to on-ice coaching and one to focus on searching for top level, good-fit players in a type of recruiting coordinator position.
“It’s a necessity and it won’t take long. Where I see our staff is that we’ll have a coach that’s on the ice 90 percent of the time and one coach that will be our recruiting guy 90 percent,’’ he said. “It’s kind of trending toward college football.
“We’d definitely like to have it in place before our young men leave for the summer (in early May).’’
Cole said he’ll meet with current assistants, Tom Newton and Kelly Miller, about the players who have committed to MSU for the next three or four seasons. Newton has been serving as interim coach since Coach Tom Anastos’ resignation on March 21.
“Going through the recruits and all that, that’ll take some time. I want to see where they’re all at and who’s been offered what,’’ he said. “I think you have to evaluate all those kids. It has to be a good situation for us and them. We’ll evaluate those and be incredibly fair and honest and figure out what is the best path for everyone.’’
FAMILY AFFAIR: Cole and his wife, Debbie, also an MSU graduate, have been married 26 years, and have three daughters, Ashton, Madeleine and Payton.
Debbie, Ashton and Payton were on hand Tuesday for the introductory press conference, but Madeleine was at a job interview in Atlanta.
“I’ll steal a joke from Jud (Heathcote). We’ve been married for 26 years. I’ve been happily married for 26. I think Deb has been married happily for about 15,’’ Cole said with a laugh.
“I’m not always the smartest guy in the room, but the smartest thing I did was tricking Deb into marrying me, and she’s been a great partner. She’s a coach’s wife with everything that entails – picking up and moving and taking care of the girls and all the business when I’m gone. We have great kids and that’s a direct reflection on her.
“My mom and dad and sister, all MSU graduates, are in different parts of the country and couldn’t make it here today, but they’re great Spartans and are really happy.’’
ROAD TO MSU: In his seventh season at the National Team Development Program, Danton Cole is completing his 18th year in coaching and 15th as a head coach.
But when he was ending his 10-year pro career, he wasn’t sure coaching was in his future.
While playing for Grand Rapids in 1999-2000, Cole broke his leg and was out for the season, so while he was still getting paid, management asked if he’d stay on as an assistant coach.
“I thought I was going to go into finance and do stocks and that interested me,’’ said Cole, who earned a degree in finance at MSU and was a three-time CCHA All-Academic Team member. “I started moving in that direction.
“The Griffins asked me if I would stick around as an assistant and I worked with Guy Charron and Curtis Hunt, who are wonderful guys. But the first day, I couldn’t stand it. I told Deb ‘I’m never doing this again.’ I thought it was the most wasted time of my life. I said, ‘We have to stay at the rink past noon? What’s going on?’
“But about a week in, I really liked it. I think I enjoy (coaching) more than I did playing. You can influence more guys. It’s 20 guys every day and it’s for the rest of their lives.’’
After two years as an assistant with Grand Rapids, Cole became the head coach with the Muskegon Fury of the United Hockey League, a step below the IHL, in 2001-02. In one season at Muskegon, Cole led the Fury to the UHL championship.
Then it was back to Grand Rapids as Griffins’ head coach for two-and-a-half seasons. A one-and-a-half-year stint with the Motor City Mechanics of the UHL followed from late 2005 through the 2005-06 season.
“After being in coaching for a while, I decided that this is going to be my career. But for three or four years, I didn’t want to be coach-of-the-year, I wanted to be coach for another year,’’ Cole said.
After one season as an assistant to Scott Paluch at Bowling Green in 2006-07, Cole spent three seasons as head coach at Alabama-Huntsville. In 2010, Cole led UAH to the NCAA Tournament where the Chargers lost to Miami, 2-1.
He left Alabama-Huntsville after that season and joined the National Team Development Program, coaching most of the best 16 and 17-year-olds in the U.S. Most move on to college hockey and many eventually to the NHL.
“I want to thank everyone at USA Hockey. It is a wonderful place to work and grow as a coach and just learn about life,’’ Cole said. “I want to thank David Ogrean, our director; (assistant director) Jim Johansson and (NTDP senior director) Scott Monaghan, who I worked with daily for seven years.
“The people there are outstanding. Their wisdom, advice and especially their friendship means an awful lot to me. Just great, great people. It was going to take a really, really special place for me to leave a really, really special place, and that’s what I’m looking at here, obviously.’’
Cole said he’s already impressed with the family atmosphere and good people that he’s met during the process of becoming MSU’s coach.
“President (Lou Anna K.) Simon and Dr. Roy (Simon), I’ve gotten to know them a little bit over the years and they’re just tremendous people,’’ he said.
“With Mark Hollis and (executive associate athletic director) Shelly Applebaum, we’ve spent a fair amount of time here the last couple weeks, discussing different things, and it’s been enlightening and makes me proud to be a Spartan and see how things are run and see the family atmosphere.’’
HOLLIS ON THE SEARCH: MSU athletics director Mark Hollis said the search for the new MSU hockey coach took 21 days, and it involved talking with lots of people who are involved in hockey and even current Spartan players.
“I started the process by standing with the team, our student-athletes. I told them that my office was always open and they responded,’’ Hollis said. “I asked them what they sought in a head coach. These are some of the words they responded with:
“A players’ coach, approachable, NHL experience, ability to develop players, a communicator, solid schemes, detail oriented, knows what’s going on in our personal lives, a proven winner, straightforward, demanding, a hockey coach.
“That’s what I heard from day one. That was the path we used in our process to search for a coach, to name a coach. I probably submitted Danton’s name seven, eight times as a recommendation for hire, and then I’d come back and say, ‘I need a little more time to look at a few more things. And (President Simon) game me that time.
“I talked to players in the NHL, USHL executives, people that love Michigan State, people that love the sport of hockey. It was a true national search at every step over the last 21 days with input coming from a number of different people about some great, great candidates that had in interest in being the head coach.’’
Hollis said that last Saturday night and Sunday morning, he reflected on what the MSU players told him.
“I thought about the passion to be here and the impact that an individual can have on so many different individuals while building a great team,’’ he said. “I thought about gold medals and hoisting a Stanley Cup, coaching more than 80 guys that went on to play in the NHL and many, many more that an individual can have a positive impact on beyond the sport of hockey.
“It took 21 days, but honestly, it could have taken just one.’’
STYLE AND PHILOSPHY: So what kind of team can Spartans fans expect to see with Danton Cole behind the bench?
It’ll likely to be a mix of aggressive offense and responsible defense, with a strong work ethic, grit and physicality. In other words, similar to the way Cole played during his college and pro careers.
“As a coach, some of the best advice you get when you talk to guys like Scotty Bowman and Coach Mason was to be yourself, and the team kind of takes an extension of that,’’ Cole said. “I’m not a heck of a lot different than I was as a player.
“I’m mean, I’m aggressive, I’m ornery. I want to impose my will physical and mentally on the other team, and that’s what our team has to be. But you have to have that attitude that you’re not giving up an inch out there and you never lose. You either win or you learn a lesson, move on from there and pick yourself up, pick your teammates up.
“It’s an aggressive game offensively and defensively, and it’s exciting if when it’s played that way.’’
PLAYERS UPBEAT: Spartan players were part of the gathering at the Huntington Club at Munn Arena watching their new coach’s press conference.
Mason Appleton, MSU’s top scorer last season with 12 goals and 19 assists for 31 points, said the feeling around the team was excitement about Cole’s hiring. Last season, MSU finished with a 7-24-4 record and was last in the Big Ten.
“You hear his name a ton and some of our guys have played for him and they have good things to say about him,’’ Appleton said. “I’ve never played for him or against one of his teams, but from what I’ve heard, it’s been good.
“I’m excited to have him as my coach and hope he can turn me into an NHL player and have a good pro career.’’
Appleton was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in the sixth round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He said he’s talked with Jets officials about his future and that he plans to return to Michigan State for his junior year.
“I’ve had conversations with them and that’s what I’m planning, to be a Spartan next year,’’ he said. “I loved all the things he said. The past couple of weeks, we’ve been sitting around checking our phones, hearing rumors here and there. Today, it’s exciting for us, learning how he wants to play, what he was like as a player and about the guys he’s moved on to the NHL.’’
Appleton said he appreciated MSU athletics director Mark Hollis reaching out to the players for their thoughts as part of his coaching search.
“It’s nice knowing that the athletic director values your opinion on what you want in a hockey coach. I didn’t go but numerous guys went and talked with him and they said all the right things,’’ Appleton said. “He said it in the press conference. We want a good coach, a good people guy, a proven winner and a NHL guy, and that’s what we have in a coach and we’re excited.’’