Oct. 25, 2012
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
When Brent Darnell took a look at the makeup of this year's Michigan State hockey team, he saw a big opportunity.
With 10 players departing from last season, including four forwards, and 12 new faces on this season's roster, Darnell targeted a bigger role for himself and a chance to make more of an impact as a sophomore forward.
His preparations started right after the season, and the first step was to improve his strength and conditioning. It involved a lot of work, a lot of sweat.
"At the end of the season, Coach (Tom) Anastos told me that he wanted me to get quicker and be more explosive, and I took that as a challenge,'' said Darnell, a 6-foot, 185-pound power forward from Canton. "As a freshman, I didn't separate myself with my conditioning from other players where it could have helped me.''
Darnell, 20, joined the Barwis Methods Training Center in Plymouth, run by former Michigan football trainer Mike Barwis. He started his training at 6:30 a.m. every day in May and June, before returning to MSU in July for second session of summer school.
"It's one thing to go to the gym and work out on your own. But I was paying for it and I was going to show up every day,'' Darnell said. "I learned about good eating habits, eating breakfast and how important it is to get the right foods in you at the right times.
"When I came back in July, I kept it going and continued to work out with our training staff.''
Thus far this season, Darnell's conditioning and his drive to make an impact have made a difference. In four games, Darnell has a team-leading two goals and one assist, he's brought more of an offensive flair to his game and continues to play with a physical presence.
"Last season, I played at around 195 pounds and now I'm around 185. I can tell the difference,'' he said. "In the corners, I can separate myself from guys a little quicker. I feel lighter on my feet. I can come out of a turn and beat a guy to the net.''
Darnell, who had six goals and seven assists for 13 points in 36 games as a freshman, scored the tying goal with 45 seconds left in the Spartans' come-from-behind 3-3 tie against Niagara last Saturday. Darnell set up freshman Matt DeBlouw's goal that tied the game 2-2 in the third period.
Darnell hopes to continue his offensive impact when the Spartans (1-2-1 overall) play their first CCHA series of the season this weekend at Lake Superior State (2-2). The teams meet at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and 7 p.m. on Saturday at Taffey Abel Arena.
"You can be a power forward and be big and sluggish or you can play physical and be quick enough to get up and down the ice and make plays,'' Darnell said. "I think I can make plays, put the puck in the net and play on the power play.''
If Darnell can provide some offense, that would be a major boost for team looking to add more scoring punch and ease load on top scoring threats like Greg Wolfe, Lee Reimer, Matt Berry and Kevin Walrod.
"We hope he can continue to emerge, both as a consistent performer defensively and add to our offense,'' Anastos said. "He did a good job of improving his conditioning, which will give him a better chance to get more minutes.''
"We're starting to see some signs of his versatility in playing different positions,'' Anastos said. "He's been able to serve as a catalyst on his lines in creating a physical presence, making plays and creating offense, particularly in front of the net.''
Darnell's teammates believe he can play a huge role in giving the Spartans' better balance on offense.
"We always knew there was more potential to tap and we're starting to see how much potential Darnell has,'' said Hayes, a senior right wing and assistant captain. "He does things in practice that make you step back and say `did that just happen?'
"He's getting up and down the ice as well as anybody and he can throw his body around. I think he can be a power forward who has a good skill aspect to his game.''
Hayes believes Darnell's dedication to being in better shape was a turning point.
"The difference between his freshman year to now is like night and day. And that's not to say he was in bad shape as a freshman,'' Hayes said. "It says more how he is as a sophomore.
"He's from my hometown (Canton) and we kept in touch all summer. He was at the gym at 6:30 every morning. I know people he was working out with and they weren't letting him cut any corners
"You can see how it's paid off. It shows his level of maturity and that he's ready to take on a bigger role.''
Said Chris Forfar, a senior forward and also an assistant captain, "He's faster, stronger and he found a drive over summer that you can already see in his play. He provides a spark to our offense in making a hit, a nice pass or going to the net, and defensively he can block shots and get pucks out.''
Darnell, a finance major, was born at Sparrow Hospital but grew up in Livonia and then moved to Canton during middle school.
Darnell's path to MSU started in minor hockey in Livonia. He later played several years in the Compuware minor hockey system before joining the Detroit Catholic Central High School team for three seasons - freshman through his junior year.
In 2009-10, Darnell spent his senior year in the United States Hockey League, playing for the Sioux Falls Stampede in Sioux Falls, S.D., and stayed for a second season. He committed to MSU near the end of his junior year at Catholic Central.
"It was tough my first year in Sioux Falls to get up every day and go to class while many of my teammates (who had graduated from high school) slept in and waited for practice,'' Darnell said with a laugh. "It wasn't easy going to school and playing so many games.
"We had some good teams but never go over the hump to make it to the finals. The bus trips were really long, but overall it was one of the best times of my life.''
Another great time in Darnell's life is the present.
"The Big Ten atmosphere is great. It's not just hockey, it's about everything that you can experience at a school like Michigan State,'' he said. "It's amazing how many former players come back here, at Homecoming or in the summer. They love it here and being involved.
"I don't think people realize how good we have it, the way they take care of us here. Every day, we have a meal after practice. When we're on the road, every meal is top notch. Last season, we flew on charter flights to North Dakota and Bridgeport (Conn.) for the regionals. When we're injured or sick, we have a great trainer in Dave Carrier to take care of us. It's a great staff, it's first class.
"Academically, we have tutors available to help me stay on track,'' Darnell added. "It's a pretty amazing place.''