Danton Cole has experienced some great moments in hockey, playing for Michigan State’s national title team in 1986, and being a member of New Jersey’s Stanley Cup championship team in 1995.
And, now Cole is thrilled to have his life come full circle and even happier since he has put the Spartans in a position to play for a Big Ten title and earn an NCAA Tournament spot in his third year as MSU’s head coach.
The No. 19 Spartans (12-11-1, 8-5-1) are tied for second in the Big Ten with No. 9 Penn State (16-7-1, 8-5-1), just a point behind conference-leading and No. 6 Ohio State (15-6-3, 8-4-2) heading into the final 10 games of the regular season.
The Spartans open up a weekend series against Penn State Friday night at Munn Ice Arena. The teams split the series back at Happy Valley on Nov. 8-9 when MSU senior goaltender John Lethemon turned aside all 48 shots he faced in a 2-0 win in the opener, with Penn State coming back to win the finale, 6-4.
Lethemon has developed into one of the nation’s top netminders, earning his fifth shutout of the season last Friday in a 4-0 win at Wisconsin, his fourth in Big Ten play. He has a 12-8-1 record overall with a 1.87 goals-against-average and .943 save percentage — second best in the nation — including 8-5-1 in conference play with a 1.56 GAA and .954 save percentage.
So, why has it been full circle for Cole?
“My dad taught here at Michigan State for 30 years in math education, so I attended (Lansing) Waverly, met my wife (Debbie) there, starting go out during my junior year in high school, so we have kind of gone full circle,” Cole said. “We left here when we were 22 basically and came back at (age) 50.”
The journey to get back included a seven-year NHL career, including a 20-goal season with Tampa Bay in 1993-94, along with head-coaching stops that included the Grand Rapids Griffins (2002-05), Alabama-Huntsville (2007-10) and with the USA National Team Development Program (2010-17) prior to being named head coach of the Spartans in 2017.
“It was a really good challenge; there were great people down there and they were passionate about it and I probably learned as much about NCAA hockey in three years, marketing and keeping things going, just a great experience,” Cole said of his time in Alabama-Huntsville, where he guided the team to an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2010, the last time Detroit hosted a Frozen Four.
Now, Detroit is hosting the Frozen Four again and Cole is hoping to get the Spartans into the NCAA tourney.
Cole has taken some of his coaching ideas from his college coach at MSU, Ron Mason, who died in 2016.
“When I got into coaching, I went back and talked to Coach (Mason) a lot about different things, how he prepared us to play, we were ready on the ice, we were ready off the ice and when we left here as young men we were ready to go and play pro hockey,” Cole said. “I’ve always kind of taken that point of view and that kind of goal for my guys.”
Cole has worked hard to make MSU relevant again since its last NCAA tourney appearance came in 2012. The Spartans rank No. 16 nationally in penalty kill (.917), which is No. 1 in the Big Ten, and is also atop the conference in defense (1.93).
Cole could see the Spartans’ potential at times last year. They showed flashes of brilliance, including an early season sweep at Cornell — which is now the nation’s No. 1 ranked team — with Lethemon in goal, and by using three freshman defensemen who now are seasoned sophomores, including Dennis Cesana, who is paired up with senior Jerad Rosburg, who scored two goals in Friday’s win at Wisconsin.
MSU’s top line consists of Patrick Khodorenko (11 goals, 24 points), Mitch Lewandowski (seven goals, 17 points) and Sam Saliba (nine goals, 14 points) who has scored a goal in five of the Spartans’ last six games.