Who better to sum up Ron Mason’s last game behind Michigan State’s bench than the winningest coach in college hockey himself?
“Unless you win the national championship,” said Mason, “you lose your last game.”
Michigan State’s 2-0 West Regional loss to Colorado College March 22 marked more than the end of the Spartans’ 2001-02 season. This was Ron Mason’s final game, and an anticlimactic one at that.
“We would have loved to have advanced,” said Mason, “but it didn’t happen.”
The Spartans had been faltering since Mason announced his plans to step down as head coach and become Michigan State’s 16th athletic director, replacing Clarence Underwood when he retires in June. The win by the lower-seeded Tigers wasn’t a surprise, and even Colorado College’s shutout of a team more accustomed to dishing out the blankings didn’t seem so shocking.
But Mason, much more a disappointed coach than a legend expected to spout profundities, seemed ironically like an actor suddenly given an award and caught without a speech.
He was asked what he was feeling as the final seconds of the clock ticked away. “Like I always am [after a loss], kind of mad and sick inside,” said Mason. “I really felt that we deserved at least one goal, and had we got that goal it would have meant a lot. We were trying everything we could to get it done.
“Fortunately for me, I have been to the top of the mountain and haven’t been down very often. But in this one, like any other game, I wasn’t thinking about the end of the career or anything like that.”
A coach with a brave face for his heartbroken players, keenly aware that their hopes for a national championship had just been dashed, but also aware that they were going to have to say goodbye to their mentor.
“Overall I thought our kids played hard, and didn’t give up, and battled right to the end,” said Mason. “That’s all we can ask for.”
Mason wanted to talk about the game his team had just lost, about the players of whom he was so obviously proud, but every reporter in the room was just itching to ask the question.
They didn’t have to.
“I’ll answer the question right now,” said Mason. “Don’t ask about the next coach. There will be an announcement. [MSU AD] Clarence Underwood will make that. We don’t have any set time for that right now.”
To Mason’s left sat senior captain Adam Hall; to his right, goaltender and 2001 Hobey Baker Award winner, Ryan Miller.
Hall said that he hadn’t been thinking about this being Mason’s last game — or his own, for that matter — because he thought his team would pull it out.
“I’ve never once this season, including tonight, felt that I was out of a game until it was over,” said Hall, “and that’s why it never even crossed my mind that it was coming.”
Asked if it was especially emotional because it was Mason’s last game, Hall said, “Any last game of the season, guys are a little emotional because some guys are leaving and the team is never going to be exactly that way again.”
Miller, a younger player who literally grew up in the Spartan locker room, who’s known Mason all his life, was more direct, and more emotional. “Coach has always been a great inspiration. I appreciate him as a coach, and as a person, he’s always been supportive of us and he made Michigan State a great place to play, and I thank him for the opportunity to play at Michigan State.”
Hall, asked if Mason’s announcement toward the end of the season had been distracting, gave a diplomatic, captain’s answer. “It wasn’t a distraction at all. This team has been focused all year long and obviously once the announcement was made there was no changing it. We continued to play strong.”
Mason however, felt the need to interject. “I’ll answer that, too. I asked a person who’s a good friend and an expert in those areas what he thought about it, because I didn’t myself want that announcement until after the season was over.
“I didn’t notice anything myself when we had a meeting on the Monday [following the announcement], but he told me that even thought I might not have noticed it, he said there would be a subtle change in that team. I still can’t see what that subtle change was, but believe me, this guy knows what he’s talking about, and I don’t think these players even know.
“Whether it’s a subtle change in a leader [or] the coach, there’s a fine-tuned machine [and] all of a sudden it just shakes it up a little bit, the way I was told. I don’t know all the details of it.
“Obviously, I think it did have a little bit of an effect, because all you have to do is look at our record from the time it was announced to today — not in terms of work habits, not in terms of anything. You just don’t know when a coach has been there that long and had that much success, what kind of an aura that has around a program. I think it was pretty tough on the players, but it was a decision I had to make at the time.
“If I’d have had my druthers, obviously I would never have made it at that time.”
Mason said it will take him a while to come to terms with having coached his last game. “Obviously, there’s a lot to remember. I think that in this position you’re always wondering what you could have done better. I guess that’s the way I look at it.
“What could I have done better — more victories, more opportunities, but the one thing I’ll never look back on is the competition part of it. I’ve always loved that … and I always will.”