Action, Not Words

It’s impossible to think of Mike York as someone who would intentionally hurt another person. The Michigan State senior forward — the CCHA’s Player of the Year and Best Defensive Forward, and a Hobey Baker finalist — is really just a soft-spoken guy from Waterford, Mich.

“He’s kind of quiet and shy,” says Bob York, Mike’s father, “kind of like his dad. A lot like his dad.”

Quiet though he may be off the ice, there’s no denying that York can put the hurt on any goalie, any place, any time. In fact, trying to match York’s often startling speed and unexpected movements can be hazardous to your health.

“My favorite Mike York goal was at home,” says Spartan Mike Weaver. “He was coming down the left wing against Ferris State and just stopped in front of the net. He was just standing there, faking the goalie, for at least five seconds.

“He went to his backhand and put it in, and the goalie pulled his hamstring and had to leave the game.”

Everyone who’s watched York play has a favorite Mike York moment, and almost all of them involve a move that defies physics and leads to a Spartan goal.

“My favorite Mike York goal is tough to pick,” says Spartan goalie Mike Gresl. “Recently, I think [of] one of the goals he scored against Miami. He faked a slapshot, scored a shelf goal and the water bottle went flying. He does that sort of thing all the time.”

“My favorite Mike York goal was earlier this year against Northern Michigan,” says freshman center Shawn Mather. “It was a one-on-three almost, and he had guys all over him. He ended up dropping his glove to get away and went in and put it top shelf.”

Top shelf seems to be synonymous with the player who wears number 61, the reverse of Pat LaFontaine’s number 16. Both are from Waterford.

“He’s always been a great member of the community,” says Weaver. “I remember when we were playing for Thornhill [junior hockey] he was always great with kids and helped out in the community. He’s always done the little things and is always looking for that sort of thing.”

York’s nice-guy, squeaky-clean image requires no spin. He owns the respect of opponents and coaches around the CCHA. He does volunteer work with elementary school children in the East Lansing area, including work with the D.A.R.E. program. Linemate Bryan Adams calls him “a great friend.” He finished high school in three years. York missed the preseason CCHA media day because he didn’t want to cut class.

But ask him about himself, and he becomes very quiet and self-deprecating. York says, “If you want to be good at it, you have to work real hard.” That’s the only explanation he offers for his success.

And the success is impressive. This week, York was named to the West All-American first team for the second consecutive season. He has 201 points (79-122) in 158 games played as a Spartan. He was one of two non-seniors named a Hobey Baker finalist for the 1997-98 season. In 1996, he was named to the CCHA’s All-Rookie team.

For his first three seasons in a green and white sweater, York played for the U.S. National Junior Team, becoming one of only 12 Americans named to the team three times. He was co-captain in 1997-98, and was the U.S. Player of the Game three times, the only player to earn the honor more than once.

The year before he was the tournament’s leading scorer at the World Junior Championship in Switzerland, where his performance drew the attention of Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd.”

Of course, his appearances with the national team meant delaying his Great Lakes Invitational debut until his senior year. Not surprisingly, then, York was on fire in Detroit last December, notching his second collegiate hat trick in Michigan State’s 5-3 win over Northern Michigan in the first round.

York had the opening goal, the game-winner, and the empty-netter. He was characteristically understated about his performance. “It’s hard to be away from your team [during tournaments]. It was nice to be around the guys and my family at Christmas time.”

On the game-winner, after taking a pass from Weaver, York made a move inside the left circle that deked Wildcat goalie Dan Ragusett out of the crease, a move that allowed York to actually go in behind the netminder to put the puck into an essentially empty net–surely someone’s favorite Mike York moment.

So how did York describe this lightning-quick move? “It was just a last-second thing. I got lucky.”

As York wraps up his collegiate career, he is–of course–low-key about his years at Michigan State.

“It’s been beyond unbelievable. There are so many memories, especially with my six other classmates.”

York says he thinks about “the different players I’ve been able to play against and with,” and says he never regrets his decision to attend school rather than play major junior hockey. “It’s great being a college student and being in the college atmosphere. At Michigan State, you know you’re on a campus with 45,000 students.”

York looked at Maine, Western Michigan, and Clarkson before deciding to head to East Lansing. “For me, it was closer to my house, only an hour away from where my parents live. When I came here, I stayed with [former Spartans] Tyler Harlton and Mike Watt. They didn’t say this is the best place to go school; they just said this is a great university and that they liked going to school here.”

York says he doesn’t think about the Hobey Baker nomination, and admits that he’s uncomfortable with the media attention he receives. “I don’t know how to react to it. The main thing I think about is team success.”

While York finished close but not first in CCHA scoring this season, he did top the league in plus/minus with a resounding +36. York is so good on both sides of the puck, so important to the defensive style the Spartans play, that he was on the ice for just three five-on-five opponent goals in the 900-plus shifts he saw this season coming into the Frozen Four.

“Having the coaches in our league vote me the Best Defensive Forward was something I was very proud of, because that is something I had to really work hard for. When I got here as a freshman I honestly didn’t know what defense was. The last couple of years I really focused on the defensive side of my game and tried to improve there, so being recognized for that was something really special.”

Part of the team success that York and his Spartans have enjoyed this season came in the form of a collective shrug, when the NCAA monkey fell off the Spartans’ backs. Until Michigan State beat Colorado College 4-3 in the West Regionals last week, York and his classmates had yet to win an NCAA tourney game.

“It was a very important win, not only for the seniors but the whole program,” says York. “We worked so hard to not have to go through the disappointment we had last year. And for us it was really important to get over the hump and shed the label of an unsuccessful team in the NCAA tournament.”

So, York’s a guy who can score, who appreciates his collegiate experience, who is a conscientious student, who likes working with kids–a team player, a leader, a humble young man. But what’s he really like? What’s the dirt on Mike York?

“I’m a golfer,” he says, confessing, “and I get my money’s worth.”

His mother, Dee, adds this shocking revelation. “He always remembers birthdays…things like that. He’s family-oriented.”

Dee also likes to tell a story about a small moment toward the end of the regular season, an anecdote that truly sums up a player who has redefined the term elite in the CCHA.

“He was in the locker room, and they hand out the [media] guides to the boys, and he was reading what the other players were saying about him. He thought he was alone when he was reading it, and he had tears coming down, and he looked up and there were several other players there.”

She wipes away tears of her own, then laughs, “Of course, they started laughing at him.”

For Mike York’s mother, the past four years have flown by too fast. “I’m happy and excited and sad,” she says, again tearfully. “I’m proud of him that other people think so much of him. He’s had a tremendous career and we’re very sorry it’s over.

“I’m more proud of the individual and the human being he is than the player he is.”

And while people around the CCHA will undoubtedly miss Mike York the human being, fans will miss the moves, the dekes, the sensational Mike York moments.

“It’s great to sit back behind the play and watch,” says classmate Chris Bogas. “You watch him and shake your head, saying, ‘How does he do that?'”