MSU a ‘special place’ for new hockey coach Danton Cole
East Lansing — Danton Cole knew there was always one place he wanted to be.
Sure, coaching in the NHL would have been great, but for the local kid who won a national championship at Michigan State under the legendary Ron Mason, coming back to be a Spartan was always the goal.
“It's good to be coming back home again,” Cole said Tuesday as he was announced as the seventh hockey coach in Michigan State history, taking over for Tom Anastos, who stepped down three weeks ago after six seasons. “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.”
Cole, of course, was part of the 1986 national championship team and went on to play six seasons in the NHL and 11 overall as a professional, even winning a Stanley Cup in 1995 with the New Jersey Devils. But once he wrapped up his playing career with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL, the graduate of Lansing Waverly moved into the coaching ranks.
His first job came as an assistant with the Griffins before coaching at Muskegon of the UHL, then returning to Grand Rapids as head coach for three years, reaching the playoffs in 2003 and ’04. Following two more years in the UHL, he moved to the college ranks, first as an assistant at Bowling Green then as the head coach at Alabama-Huntsville. In 2010, he moved on to USA Hockey, where he won two gold medals and a bronze leading the U-18 team in the World Championships and had three top-three finishes at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
And when it was time for Michigan State to find someone new, it didn’t take athletic director Mark Hollis long.
“Over the course of the past 21 days, I talked to Spartans, coaches at all levels, and coaches from many different sports that knew the individuals that we were looking at,” Hollis said. “I talked to players in the NHL, USHL executives, people that love Michigan State University, and people that love the sport of hockey. It was a national search over the past 21 days with input coming from a number of different people about some great, great candidates that had interest in being the head coach at Michigan State.
“It took us 21 days, but honestly, it could have just taken one.”
It’s a move that was almost made once before. When Hollis made his last hire, bringing Anastos – another former player under Mason – from the CCHA office, many believed Cole was going to be the choice.
However, it didn’t happen then. Cole stuck with USA Hockey and now is charged with building back a program that hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament in five years and is well-removed from its last national title of 2007.
Cole understands the task at hand.
“I'm not big on saying, ‘Hey, this year this, this year that,’” Cole said. “I'm more impressed and influenced by systems: Let's put a system in place here of excellence, put a system in place that the guys have the opportunity to excel, have a system in place that we're always moving forward, and if there's a little bump, it doesn't matter. You look past that. It's going forward.
“And that's culture. That's program. I think that's what the university believes in, and that's what we have to have.”
The next task for Cole is assembling a staff. Assistant coach Tom Newton has been in charge of the program since Anastos left and whether he, Kelly Miller or goaltending coach Jason Muzzatti stick around remains to be seen.
Either way, Cole plans to move swiftly.
“I hope to have things settled down here fairly soon, within the next week and a half or so,” Cole said. “Certainly I've got to spend some time with the guys that are on staff now and kind of go through some things. I don't think it'll be real long, but we'll move through it. I think it's important to get things right and do them in the right process.”
From there it’s recruiting – identifying who has already committed under Anastos and where the program goes from there. Cole believes his experience with the national team gives him a unique ability to identify talent.
“It's good to be part of that process, being at the festivals, seeing where the good players are coming from and knowing what they're attracted to,” Cole said. “So I think it gives us a good head start. Certainly those are the level players that we're going to be recruiting.”
And if all those pieces fall into place, Cole will have Michigan State hockey back where he believes it belongs.
“We want to start winning Big Ten championships, and you get in the NCAA, you're four wins away,” Cole said. “You get a hot goalie, and you can ride it out, and that's where we want to be in that conversation every year, and then finally have a team that the people and the student body look at and say, ‘Man, they're good academically, they're good off the ice, and they're really good on the ice.’ That's the trifecta. That's where we need to be.”