Aug. 17, 2006
East Lansing, Mich. - by Chris Richards, MSU Sports Information Student Assistant
At 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, associate hockey coach Tom Newton waits for players to arrive for practice. Coffee in hand, he smiles because he knows the tardiness isn't because of class or transportation problems, but because players have to drop their kids off at school.
This summer practice is part of the MSU Pro Camp, a week-long camp that features former Spartans who play professional hockey, including the NHL, ECHL, UHL, AHL or abroad. With 23 former Spartans in attendance, Newton said he enjoys seeing how players' lives have changed, and also the camaraderie among all the players.
"Due to the success of the program, we've got a lot of guys playing (professionally)," Newton said. "They're all Spartans, and they respect that you are part of the program and that you're a professional."
Shortly after graduating, former goalie Jason Muzzatti (1988-91) generated the idea of a pro camp, wanting to formally organize a reunion of former Spartan players, and to serve as a warm-up for professional training camps at the beginning of the fall. Now in its 12th year, the concept has since blossomed into a fun and unique blend of professional players from many leagues, both American and international.
What started as a gradual warm-up for fall training camps has evolved into a competitive workout, with conditioned players already near mid-season form.
"These guys are in such great shape, and they come here and want to get after it pretty quickly. They want to get to game speed and compete," Newton said.
Aside from providing extra training before fall camps, MSU's Pro Camp serves a second purpose. Now a part of MSU's rich hockey tradition, the camp reaffirms the family atmosphere within the Spartan hockey program.
"Our other goal is to get the guys together back in the old Spartan locker room and let them know that they're still a big part of this place - that we're proud of you and you're welcome back here any time," Newton said.
Though John-Michael Liles (2000-03) graduated only three years ago, he said the camp keeps him connected with other players and makes playing against each other during the NHL season more fun.
"It's socially a lot of fun, because you see each other during the season and have things to talk about and enjoy catching up," Liles said.
Now entering his fourth season with the Colorado Avalanche, Liles knows that current players look forward to this week as much as the alumni do. As a current player, he remembers visiting the camp to catch up with former teammates, and to meet and watch other alumni playing professionally.
Jim Slater (2002-05) is returning to MSU's camp after completing his rookie season with the Atlanta Thrashers. Being a younger player, he not only revisits former teammates, but also learns from the experience of Spartan veterans.
Though he's only one year removed from playing for Michigan State, he recognizes the instant connection associated with being part of the Spartan hockey program.
"With a hockey team, it doesn't matter how long you're away from each other, because when you come back, it feels like you've been friends for a while," Slater said.
Sitting in a room with plaques of Spartans in the NHL spread across an entire wall, both Liles and Slater said remaining close to the program was important because they know how much alumni contribute to the success of Spartan hockey.
"It gave me so much during my four years here, so one of the reasons I come back is out of respect," Slater said. "It's a bond and still a lot of fun."
This bond is what keeps the MSU Pro Camp fresh each year for both alumni and current players.
"I'm still friends with a lot of the current players, so it's good to see them come watch and take everything in," Slater said. "If you look today, there will be guys from next year's team watching, so it's like a circle; it keeps cycling through," Slater said.
"It keeps all of our guys in touch, and it reinforces that they're a group. Even though one guy played in 1991 and another played in 2006, there's still a common bond with those guys because of this camp," Newton said.