2018 Distinguished Spartan Award Winner: Jim Slater
Slater was honored on Monday at the annual Spartan Hockey Awards Banquet.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING -- The pinnacle of Jim Slater’s hockey career was playing for the United States Olympic Team in in South Korea two months ago.
It was something the former two-time Michigan State captain never expected. But he seized an opportunity and ended up having the greatest sports experience of his life.
“It was the coolest sporting scene ever, and to be a part of it will always be with me,’’ Slater said.
’’Going to the Olympics, being in the Olympic Village, seeing all the best athletes in the world and skating on Olympic ice, it was an incredible experience. I actually scored a goal, and to get that opportunity to be there – you never think of being an Olympic athlete -and do it and then score a goal, it’s an amazing feeling.’’
Slater, 35, an elite center for the Spartans from 2001-05, has had plenty of other great memories during his long hockey career.
Growing up in Lapeer, Slater played minor hockey in the Detroit area and then three years of juniors in Cleveland. Then four seasons in college at Michigan State and 13 years as a pro - 10 in the National Hockey League in Atlanta and Winnipeg and three in Switzerland.
“It was always my goal to play college hockey and get a scholarship to Michigan State, and it was my dream to play in the NHL,’’ said Slater, the 2018 recipient of the MSU Distinguished Alumnus Award. “The best way to accomplish my dream was to go to Michigan State.
“I had Ron Mason as my coach the first year, Duncan Keith was my roommate and there were NHL-bound players on that team – Adam Hall, Andrew Hutchinson, John-Michael Liles and Ryan Miller. It kind of hit me after my junior year that I could make it to the NHL.’’
Slater said he’s thrilled to be joining an impressive list of Distinguished Spartan winners who achieved great success on and off the ice – like Tom Ross, Ron Scott, Kelly Miller, Don McSween, Mike Donnelly, Bryan Smolinski, Anson Carter, Dwayne Norris, Danton Cole, Rem Murray, Jason Muzzatti, Amo Bessone, Ron Mason and many others.
“Being part of the banquets in college, you always heard what the alumni winners had gone on to do, and in the back of your mind, you wondered if you could come back and win that award,’’ Slater said. “There’s been so many great hockey players and great people to come out of Michigan State, and to be part of that group is pretty special.
“To get that recognition is quite an honor.’’
Before enrolling at MSU in 2005, Slater had an outstanding junior career with the Cleveland Barons of the North American Hockey League. He scored 75 goals and had 182 points in 154 games over three seasons for the Barons.
Slater left home at age 15 to play in Cleveland and the long-term goal was to develop into a Division I player. He credits his parents, Bill and Diane, for their dedication and support of his hockey goals and dreams.
“There are so many options for kids growing up – which team to play for, when to leave home, which college to go to,’’ Slater said. “My parents were always there, trying to do the right things in putting myself in the right situation to succeed.
“My mom and dad were really good in setting standards and going through the pros and cons in trying to figure it out.’’
Slater’s path to Michigan State wasn’t easy. There were times when he was frustrated and homesick in Cleveland, even though his parents made the four-hour drive to home games and even found their way to many road games.
“I know my mom didn’t want me to leave home but my dad and I were on the same page as to what I had to do,’’ Slater said. “I was 15 when I got to Cleveland and was playing on a team with 20-21-year-olds and I didn’t know what to expect.
“There were some hard times. I remember going home on some weekends or on a Sunday and telling my mom and dad that I didn’t want to go back. One year, I got a concussion the second game of the season and I was upset and crying and my parents wanted to pack me up and take me home.
“But I knew I had to stay. My goal was to play college hockey and get a scholarship, and to do that, I needed to be strong. It was tough. I went to four different high schools and missed out on a lot of things, but I loved being at the rink and working on something. That was my place.’’
In the end, the away-from-home experience made the start of his college career easier.
“Juniors was a great learning experience. I learned so much about myself,’’ Slater said. “It prepared me for college.’’
In four years at MSU, Slater played in 157 games, scored 64 goals and had 108 assists for 172 points, which is 23rd on the Spartans’ career scoring list. He was fourth in team scoring as a freshman, third as a sophomore and first as a junior (19 goals, 29 assists, 48 points) and a senior (16-32-48).
He also won a lot of MSU team awards – most valuable player (2004, 2005), outstanding rookie (2002), outstanding offensive player (2004), outstanding senior (2005) and Amo Bessone Award for athletic and academic achievement and community participation (2005).
In addition, Slater was a Hobey Baker finalist (2004), a second-team West All-American (2004), All-CCHA first team (2003, 2004) and first-team All-CCHA rookie team (2002).
Slater played in two NCAA Tournaments (2002, 2004), one Frozen Four in 2002, and his four teams compiled a record of 93-57-13.
Even though Slater received scholarship offers from schools in the East, the WCHA and the CCHA, he never wavered in his desire to be a Spartan.
“It was always MSU. My brother went there, my sister was going to go there and it was an hour away from home,’’ he said. “There was great tradition, Ron Mason was the coach and I knew that’s where I wanted to be. I had an opportunity to be a No. 1 line center with Adam Hall and that was very appealing. We had the No. 1 recruiting class and were pre-season No. 1.
“With Ron Mason as coach and the competition I would get in practice, I knew that would make me a better player.’’
Slater’s first goal as a Spartan was also his most memorable among his 64 as a collegian, and a favorite of many MSU fans. His first game was the outdoor “Cold War” game against Michigan at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 6, 2001.
In front of a then world-record crowd of 74,554, Slater’s goal with 47 seconds left in the third period tied the game 3-3, and that’s how it ended after a scoreless overtime. Slater also had an assist on MSU’s first goal by Adam Hall early in the first period.
“In front of 74,000 fans, it’s your first game and you wonder how is it going to get any better,’’ Slater said. “But my whole college experience was incredible. For sure, that goal was my biggest in college hockey.’’
Slater remembers he almost didn’t play in the Cold War game because of a groin injury suffered in preseason practice.
“I missed the exhibition game so I didn’t know if I’d would be able to play with the bad groin,’’ he said. “But (MSU trainer) Dave Carrier and Dr. Jennifer Gilmore and (other doctors), well, whatever they did, it got me better, but 3-4 days before, I was uncertain if I could play. I wanted to play in that game so bad.’’
Slater said his four years at MSU on and off the ice prepared him well for the NHL. He was ready for the challenge of pro hockey, and eventually he earned his bachelor’s degree in human resources
“I tried to enjoy my days in college and not look so much to the future. Michigan State has a family vibe and everyone is so connected with each other,’’ Slater said. “Everyone is welcome back.
“On the ice and off the ice, it was all about hard work and the mentality was that you have to do it because someone out is working to be better than you. That was a big thing that I learned. I wanted to be as good as I could at Michigan State, and the people, resources and support were there to help you do it. You just had to have the motivation.’’
After his freshman year, Slater was selected in the first round of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft by the Atlanta Thrashers with the 30th overall pick. After his junior year, his confidence was high and he felt he was on track to make the NHL.
Slater credits Thrashers coach Bob Hartley for his 10-year NHL career – the first six in Atlanta and the next four with the Winnipeg Jets, after the Thrashers were sold and moved to Manitoba.
“I came in and had a good rookie year but then I struggled a little my second year. Bob Hartley called me into his office and said he wanted to tell me a story about Guy Carbonneau of the Montreal Canadiens,’’ Slater said. “He said Carbonneau was a flashy kid in juniors, scoring 100 points a year. But the reason he played 18 years (in the NHL) was because he changed his game.
“Hartley said Carbonneau knew he wasn’t going to be a top-line points guy so he changed his game to becoming a good penalty killer, a guy who won faceoffs and blocked shots.’’
Slater got the message and set out to work on being that type of player.
“For me, I knew I wasn’t going to be a total offensive guy, so I really focused on the little things – faceoffs, penalty killing, playing physical, being good defensively,’’ he said. “I knew I had to do those things better than anybody if I wanted to stick in the NHL.’’
Slater became a highly effective, third-fourth line forward and occasionally chipped in offensively.
He enjoyed his time in both Atlanta, a non-traditional hockey market, and Winnipeg, where fans lived and breathed the sport.
“Atlanta was a really good city for me. My first two years, we had a really good team with a lot of good players coming through there,’’ Slater said. “It was my first team in the NHL and anything that is your first is the greatest. I loved the city, the guys I played with and the fans.
“My fourth and fifth seasons, we struggled and you could see what was going on. All of sudden, our owners sold (the franchise) to Winnipeg. But I was very fortunate to be able to play in a Canadian city and in that market. It was my type of town – not too big or small. Hockey was back and it was an incredible experience. As a player, you were a local celebrity.
“It was 180 degrees different than Atlanta but both had their special things, and I look back and feel fortunate to have been drafted by Atlanta and played there and moving to Winnipeg and playing in that market. I’m so happy for that city. They’re such good people and knowledgeable fans, and it’s a great organization.’’
After his four seasons in Winnipeg, Slater took his game to Europe and played two seasons in Geneva, Switzerland, for Geneve Servette, and last year played for Fribourg-Gotteron in Fribourg, Switzerland.
After the 2016-17 season, Slater was ready to retire and come back to his home in East Lansing, where his wife, Andria, and daughter Wyn, now 4, were living while he was in Europe.
But in April, the NHL announced that they would not be sending players to the 2018 Winter Olympics, like they had been doing since 1998. That opened the door for all players not under NHL contracts, especially those playing in Europe.
“I was tired of being away from my family and thinking about retiring,’’ Slater said. “But when the NHL decided it wasn’t going to the Olympics, my wife said ‘You have to go, give yourself a chance.’”
Slater knew U.S. Olympic team general manager Jim Johansson very well from when Slater was a teenager and was involved in USA Hockey teams and later with World Championship teams. Johannsen called Slater and said “stay ready.”
So Slater, who had not signed with Genève Servette, had to find another team and be in good position to make the U.S. team.
“In Switzerland, you’re supposed to sign for the following year halfway through the season. I was telling everyone I was going to retire, so last summer I was searching for a team,’’ he said. “I had offers in Germany and Russia, but I wanted to go back to Switzerland.’’
Thankfully, there was a spot open in Fribourg and Slater jumped on it. He started the season there and then played in the Deutschland Cup, a showcase tournament in November in Augsburg, Germany, for players seeking spots on the U.S. Olympic team.
“I went there and played pretty well and Jim Johannson liked the way I played and felt like I had a good chance to make the team, because of my experience in the NHL and what I brought on and off the ice,’’ Slater said.
On Dec. 27, Slater got the arguably the greatest text of his life – from Johannsen.
“I was home in East Lansing for five days at Christmas and he said he was trying to call me and said to call him back because it’s going to be a good call,’’ Slater said. “I grabbed my wife’s phone and called him and he said, ‘Slates, you’re going to be an Olympian.’ I just kind of stopped for 3-4 seconds and then thanked and thanked him. To actually hear that you’re going to be an Olympian is incredible.’’
Slater told his wife and daughter of the news and then called his parents.
“I had my daughter, Wyn, break the news to my parents,’’ Slater said. “To hear her say those words, ‘My daddy is going to be an Olympian’ was just crazy.’’
Less than a month later, Johannson died suddenly of a heart attack, shocking the international hockey world.
“It was definitely a tough situation,’’ Slater said. “He was very good to me.’’
The U.S. team went 2-3, losing in the quarterfinals in a shootout, 3-2. Slater scored shorthanded to tie the game 2-2 in the second period.
“The whole Olympic experience was amazing,’’ he said. “Like they say, you’re never a former Olympian; you’re always an Olympian. That’s an amazing thing to say.’’
What’s ahead for the former Spartan captain? Retirement or more hockey?
“I would like to play another year. My body feels good, my mind feels good,’’ Slater said. “You can only play for so long. It’s a great thing to play pro hockey and you just don’t want to stop.
“The tough part is not having my wife and daughter over there. I think my wife is going to let me play again. I had so much fun in Switzerland, I love being in Europe and I like how the hockey is played over there.
“And now it’s kind of like last year. I have to go find a team.’’