It’s impossible to think of Rick Comley as a sophomore coach. After 26 years behind the bench as Northern Michigan’s first head coach, Comley is seventh on the NCAA’s all-time win list. As he follows in the footsteps of his mentor, the legendary Ron Mason, Comley is poised to add to his own legend at Michigan State.
“For me it’s like night and day from a year ago,” says Comley of the start of his second season at Michigan State.
“I yell at somebody on the ice and they are not tugging my pant leg on the bench because they’re sitting beside me, rather than out there.”
Comley had some adjusting to do when he left the program he built in Marquette for the program that Mason built in East Lansing. Not only did Comley have to make the adjustment to coaching at a Big Ten school after being the big fish in a smaller pond for years, but he had to convert the Mason faithful, convince them that his style of hockey — slightly different than that of his longtime friend and teacher — is what the Spartans need.
That style combines the tight defense of a Ron Mason team with the potentially explosive and wide-open offense of a Rick Comley team. The result? A dismal first half of the 2002-03 season, followed by sweet belief down the home stretch.
“The strength of the team should be up front,” says Comley. “I think we finished fifth in the country in scoring last year, which was a radical change from the past. We will continue that emphasis. I think the players are much more comfortable with our style of play.”
The problem is that three of the team’s top scorers — guys that caught fire in the second half of the season after buying into Comley’s systems — are gone. John-Michael Liles, Brad Fast and Brian Maloney were seniors last year, and when they left they took with them their 46 goals, a quarter of the Spartans’ 2002-03 goal production.
Comley is confident that returning players like new captain Jim Slater, David Booth, Mike Lalonde, and Brock Radunske will emerge, and he’s counting on newcomer Tom Goebel to add to the totals as well.
When Liles and Fast left, MSU lost more than its top two scorers. These were two of the best defensemen in the league, and defense is where the Spartans will need the most help this year. “We have five freshman defensemen,” says Comley, “and you certainly do not replace Fast and Liles.”
Comley says that he thinks the Spartans will be better in goal, and that will be a welcome change. Junior Matt Migliaccio became the starter for the Spartans in net last year and had a respectable season, especially during the second half, while Justin Tobe — who was supposed to step in where Ryan Miller left off — had a disappointing eight starts and is no longer with the team.
“We have a young freshman in Dominic Vicari, who I think will play really well but I don’t know if he’ll be our number-one goaltender,” says Comley. “I think that Matt Migliaccio learned an awful lot; he’s a great story going from a walk-on to a number one goaltender in an upscale program. I think obviously we gave up too much, and we have to balance that factor out.”
What’s not to love about this story? Comley, who builds a quality program from scratch in Marquette, is now coaching at a place where he has advantages of which he could only dream in the Upper Peninsula: a Big Ten school, longstanding CCHA tradition, legendary Munn Arena, all advantages in recruiting.
His task is to now show that he can do even more than he did in Marquette; if he attains the kind of success for which he has potential at Michigan State, Comley’s legend and legacy will grow exponentially.
He’s great coach and a great guy and his teams have always been a pleasure to watch, well-coached and disciplined kids with a good work ethic. Add the MSU sports machine, and this is a college hockey dream come true.
Oh, and another Miller has joined the ranks of the Spartans. Forward Drew Miller — son of Dean, grandson of Butch, brother of Ryan, nephew of Lyle, cousin of Kip, Kevin, Kelly, as well as Curtis and Taylor Gemmel — is the 10th member of that particular gene pool to grace the ice at Munn Arena.
Radunske, Lee Falardeau, and Miller. Maybe.
Five rookie defenders and four of the top five scorers from a year ago gone. Add to that MSU’s scheduling cluster with Miami, Michigan, and Ohio State, and you may see a rebuilding year in East Lansing.