It is hard to know where to begin.
On Saturday morning, I listened to then-CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos discuss the ways in which he and the CCHA would deal with the impending Big Ten league.
On Monday morning, the Big Ten made its Big Announcement.
On Wednesday afternoon, Michigan State announced that now-former CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos is the new head coach of Michigan State hockey.
Does anyone else find this dizzying?
I’ll start with the newest first. Next week – after real games have been played by teams still currently playing real games – I’ll post a few things that I’ve heard about how the Big Ten will impact the CCHA, including what now-former commissioner Tom Anastos had to say about it at that Saturday brunch.
Tom Anastos (MSU 1982-86)
In the press conference Wednesday announcing his hiring, Anastos said it himself: “It’s not every day a commissioner’s hired to come coach a team.”
I’d take that one step further. It’s not every day that someone whose last college coaching experience was nearly 20 years ago is hired as a head coach at a high-profile university.
That’s one question I have. Why did Michigan State choose someone with no recent direct college hockey coaching experience?
MSU athletic director Mark Hollis took everyone through his hiring process at the press conference. “I’ve had the opportunity to meet with so many people – people from the hockey world, people from the athletic world, and people from the business world, talking about what it takes to be a great leader, what it takes to be a great coach, and frankly what it takes to be a great Spartan. Through it all we started with 20-plus names.”
“In the end,” said Hollis, “Tom Anastos jumped to the forefront on all the characteristics I believe take a true leader. I think when I step back and I look, any time I hire a coach I step back and look at my three children, and I think, ‘Who would I entrust my three children with to be a mentor?’ And that was a big factor in hiring Tom Anastos.”
“I believe that we have to create a culture here,” said Hollis, “where folks in the NHL – scouts, general managers – believe that we’re giving our kids everything possible to train, develop not only to play in the NHL but for a life beyond, and that’s what Tom Anastos believes in.”
I am on board with this. There’s no question that NCAA hockey needs to compete harder with major junior Canadian hockey for college-eligible players. No question. From what Anastos has said on several occasions, I know that he’s passionate about keeping college-eligible players in college.
“His ability to recruit is going to be unbelievable because he’s genuine,” said Hollis. “He doesn’t have the ability to lie. He’s going to sit in a family room, he’s going to sit with parents, he’s going to sit with family advisors and he’s going to be genuine about what he’s going to deliver to their kid when he comes to Michigan State to play.
“There’s nothing hidden about Tom Anastos.”
Frankly, if it turns out that he was negotiating with MSU for the head coaching position while discussing the future of the CCHA, then I have a hard time buying into that last line. If it turns out that the position spontaneously generated (read on), then I’ll keep an open mind.
“Family advisor” is code for the guy who will probably become the young recruit’s agent once he becomes a professional player. These family advisors are on the scene for players as young as 14 years old. It’s telling that the director of athletics at a Big Ten school is comfortable lumping the family advisor in with players’ actual families and friends.
In starting the whole shebang on Wednesday afternoon, Michigan State University president Lou Anna Simon said that MSU is all “about building programs.” She talked about retaining men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo and the hiring of baseball coach Jake Boss.
She talked about football and women’s basketball – though she didn’t mention Mark Dantonio’s and Suzy Merchant’s names – and about MSU traditions. Simon said that the choice was about “someone that will be a terrific spokesperson for all of Team MSU, not simply about the hockey program,” but someone who will “speak about the basketball program, the women’s basketball program, all the sports and athletics – and do that with great passion – but also the academic programs at Michigan State University.”
Ah. Now we get down to at least part of it. Well, I can say without hesitation that Tom Anastos can absolutely be a high-profile spokesperson for Michigan State, and if that’s what MSU wants, then he’s a good choice. I wonder, however, if Izzo, Boss, Dantonio and Merchant are also getting the memo that they’ll be promoting men’s ice hockey now, too.
One of the most interesting things to emerge from the press conference is a summary, in Anastos’ own words, of the time line of the hire.
“It’s a real bold move by Mark Hollis, who is known for bold moves,” said Anastos. “I got a call on Sunday, left a message, like me to call him. That was kind of my day of rest after the build-up to the CCHA tournament. When I called him back, he told me he wanted to talk about the hockey coaching position. I didn’t really think much of it.
“Then he said he wants to talk to me about the hockey coaching position. We had talked about it for months – or for weeks – about his search, what he’s looking for, if I could offer some names and so on.” Anastos described it himself as “shock and awe.”
That sounded to me as though Anastos was saying that he didn’t know he was in the running for the position until Sunday morning. I was unable to contact Anastos for further clarification on this, but I will continue to try.
So, what kind of hockey does someone who hasn’t coached college hockey since the early 1990s intend to bring to his new team?
“Our style of play will probably be much like it was when I was here,” said Anastos. “I know the game has changed a lot and I don’t mean from that perspective because it’s a different game today, but the beauty of the game that I played when I was here was that when we had the puck on our stick we got to go play.”
That, like many of the comments by Hollis, Simon and Anastos, sounded like a poke at Rick Comley. Perhaps that’s just me.
“The game isn’t any more sophisticated today than it was years ago,” said Anastos. “You’ve got to have great goaltending, you have to play great defensive hockey from your zone out, and when you don’t have the puck you’ve got to be hard to play against, but when you get the puck the best defense is an attacking offense and it’s fun to play.”
I don’t think anyone would argue for the need for fun in Munn Arena.
Anastos said that among the first things he will do is meet with players and staff, hit the recruiting trail and “solidify our plans” and “really start to look ahead.”
Anastos praised Hollis for Hollis’ “bold move” to hire Anastos, and there’s no question that this is a bold move – but a bold move doesn’t always mean a good one. I know that many people are justifiably skeptical, as am I. This kind of reminds me the current fashion to put businessmen and women – instead of teachers – in charge of schools.
Finally, a comment from Hollis that reminds me of the whispered message that Ray Kinsella heard in Field of Dreams: “Ease his pain.”
“When you’re a commissioner and having worked in a conference office itself for ten years,” said Hollis, “you can’t wear anything green, you can’t celebrate Michigan State’s victories, but on the inside, I know he was burning. He was burning to be a Spartan. He was burning for success here while hiding that passion deep inside him.”