'Iconic' MSU hockey coach Ron Mason dies at 76

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing— Ron Mason, who won more than 900 college hockey games and delivered a national championship to Michigan State in 1986, collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack Sunday night while at his daughter’s home in Haslett, assistant director/athletic communications Jeff Barnes confirmed.

He was 76.

The longtime coach of the Spartans who went on to become the school’s athletic director from 2002-07, was remembered on Monday as an icon of the sport and the university.

“He is one of the icons at Michigan State,” said current athletic director Mark Hollis. “He is one of the Mt. Rushmore individuals.”

Mason was born Jan. 14, 1940, in Blyth, Ontario. He is survived by his wife, Marion, daughters, Tracey and Cindy, and grandsons, Tyler and Travis Walsh. Travis Walsh completed his hockey career at Michigan State this spring.

Details of Mason’s death haven’t been released but he was active and vibrant in retirement and the news was shocking to those who knew him.

“I’m still stunned,” said Michigan State coach Tom Anastos, who played for Mason from 1981-85. “Obviously the loss of coach Mason comes as a huge shock to all of us. To see him bouncing around with energy and his intensity and to think that I’m not going to see that is hard to get arms around.”

In Mason’s 36 years of college coaching, he finished with a record of 924-380-83, the second-most wins in college hockey history. In 23 years at MSU, he posted a 635-270-69 mark. In addition to the national title in 1986, Mason won an NAIA championship with Lake Superior State in 1972.

Henning: Mason brought excellence, intelligence to MSU

At Michigan State, Mason led the Spartans to 17 CCHA regular-season and playoff titles and guided 23 teams to the NCAA Tournament, an all-time record.

“Coach Mason defined what it means to be a Spartan,” Michigan State president Lou Anna K. Simon said. “His relentless quest for excellence on and off the rink made everyone around him better. He truly created a Spartan hockey family in which the focus was on collective success rather than worrying about who received credit. That drive translated into great accomplishments on the ice and in life for all those fortunate enough to work with or play for him.”

Mason was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013. He is also in the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, the MSU Hall of Fame and Lake Superior's Hall of Fame.

Mason was succeeded by Rick Comley as Michigan State’s head coach in 2002 and by Anastos in 2011. Comley also won an NCAA title with the Spartans in 2007.

“I’ve known him since I was 17 years old when he recruited me to come here,” Anastos said. “He had such an impact on me and my professional life. … It was mind-blowing to me when I heard the news early this morning of our loss.”

Mason’s coaching career began at Lake Superior State in 1966 before he landed at Bowling Green in 1974. After six seasons there, he took over at Michigan State in 1979.

Over the next 23 years, he coached 35 All-Americans and 50 former Spartans who went on to establish careers in the National Hockey League. He also coached 13 Hobey Baker finalists and two players who won the award – forward Kip Miller in 1990 and goalie Ryan Miller in 2001.

“I’m kind of numb right now,” said former Spartan and NHL defenseman Jason Woolley. “Nothing about this makes sense. I talked to him last week, the week before. What can I say?

“The guy was an icon, a legend in his sport.”

Michigan State assistant coach Tom Newton played for Mason at Bowling Green before serving as an assistant to Mason at Michigan State. He just completed his 26th year with the Spartans, also serving as an assistant from Anastos and Rick Comley.

“I knew him since I was about 13 years old,” Newton said. “I played for him. I coached for him. I had a lot of fun with him. I went through a lot of things with him. I watched him bring a lot of young men along and I was one of those young men. I’ve talked to lot of different guys and lot of different ages today. He had an impact on a lot of people.

“I was just with Marion and Cindy and it’s a hard day for them. It’s gonna be hard day for the Spartan hockey family. One of the things he always said was to be strong and keep going on and we’ll certainly do that and do it in his honor.”

Mason transitioned from his coaching duties to that of an athletic director in 2002. Michigan State had its share of success in that time, winning 76 conference championships and bringing home a national title with the hockey team in 2007.

Soon, Mason was working with Hollis to take over in 2008. It was just one step in the relationship between Hollis and Mason that began when Hollis was a student in the 1980s and was lucky enough to talk hockey with Mason while reading an elevator with his roommate.

“It’s a memory I recount quite often,” Hollis said, “because he gave us the sense he cared even though we were a couple of students cheering on the team.”

A highlight of Hollis and Mason working together was the hiring of football coach Mark Dantonio to Michigan State in November of 2007. But it was the way Mason always operated that has stuck with Hollis – how Mason always put Michigan State first.

“The thing you learn about college athletics is those that are here are your family,” Hollis said. “I don’t think anybody appreciates, in good times and bad, how much you go through together. People put you on a pedestal or try and knock your legs out. In good and bad times it’s family that is here for you. That’s what Ron was, that pillar of strength to so many different people. Whether you were a coach, a student-athlete or an administrator, he cared about all of them.”