The Once And Future King

It’s not hard to imagine Frank Anzalone on the lot, selling used cars. Or pitching pyramids. Or hawking tonic.

Step right up! This one’s definitely going to work in the future! If I had the ingredients I used to have, this one would fix everything right now!

A kindred spirit to Ron Popeil, Anzalone advertises his resume every chance he gets — on the phone, in postgame press conferences. One can imagine him going up and down the aisles in the supermarket in Sault Ste. Marie, pressing the flesh and selling his version of Laker hockey, which is a version of Anzalone himself.

Everyone who has met Anzalone during the course of his career has an opinion about him, but not all will attach their names to their comments.

One former coaching colleague called Anzalone a “disgrace,” someone who “doesn’t belong in college hockey.” A reporter who knew him during Anzalone’s East Coast Hockey League days said, “He’s alienated people at every level he’s coached. There’s a reason for that.”

Anzalone is impervious to such barbs. It’s all about jealousy and the way he’s perceived, he says.

"Maybe because I answer questions honestly. Maybe because I came up at a time when nobody wanted that to happen. Maybe people looked at my intensity and focus and thought that I’m full of myself."

— Frank Anzalone, on his detractors’ motivations

“Maybe because I answer questions honestly. Maybe because I came up at a time when nobody wanted that to happen. Maybe people looked at my intensity and focus and thought that I’m full of myself.

“Sometimes I’m way too honest in my interviews.”

That honesty earned Anzalone plenty of criticism during the 2001-02 season at Lake Superior State, when he’d frequently — and publicly — berate players after losses and blame the Lakers’ 8-27-2 season on a lack of talent.

Anzalone’s first tenure as head coach of Laker hockey began in 1982-83, peaked with LSSU’s national championship in 1987-88, and ultimately ended when Anzalone’s contract was not renewed after the 1989-90 season.

The reasons for Anzalone being shown the door were not disclosed — the administration never said and isn’t talking now, and Anzalone himself won’t elaborate — but after he left, Anzalone spent 10 successful years coaching pro and high school hockey.

Returning after the dismissal of Scott Borek at the end of the 2000-01 season, Anzalone bills himself as the cure for everything that ails the Laker program.

Anzalone says the current program has “a lot of good kids, a lot of kids that do care,” but adds that “the program has obviously taken a dive — a serious dive.”

“We’re not as talented as we need to be,” he says. “Our work ethic isn’t where it should be. We’re trying to re-instill in them [players] what the work ethic needs to be like, what the passion needs to be like. As we recruit players who fit that model, that will become easier over time.

“I think my presence has helped regain sort of the thought that there needs to be hard work.”

As for his critics: “Those who want to deny it [the program’s falling off] are not being fair. It took a long time to hurt it, and it’s hurt very hard.”

The Anzalone Formula

No matter one’s opinion of Anzalone’s coaching style and public persona, it’s hard to argue with his track record. In addition to the 1988 national championship, Anzalone led the Lakers to three other NCAA Tournament appearances. In 1988, Anzalone was the recipient of the Spencer T. Penrose Memorial Award, Division I men’s ice hockey’s coach of the year.

Once cut free from Lake State, Anzalone had a number of coaching positions at a variety of levels. Anzalone coached the Newmarket Saints (AHL) in 1990-91 and the Nashville Knights (ECHL) in 1991-92. In 1992-93, Anzalone took the Toms River (N.J.) North High School team to the state championship, and then signed with the Roanoke Express of the ECHL.

Anzalone was the Express’s first head coach and guided Roanoke for five years, during which he was in charge of all hockey operations, from recruiting to travel arrangements. His Roanoke teams made the ECHL playoffs every year he coached, and in 1997-98, Roanoke won the ECHL Northeast Division Championship.

Anzalone left the job with Roanoke to become head coach of the Lowell (Mass.) Lock Monsters (AHL), but was let go after one season in a “cost-cutting” move, in spite of Anzalone’s having taken the Lock Monsters to the top of the AHL’s Atlantic Division in 1998-99.

After his stint with Lowell, Anzalone returned to the ECHL as the head coach of the Pee Dee Pride (Florence, S.C.), where once again Anzalone proved he knows how to win. The Pride finished the 1999-00 season with a 47-18-5 record and won the 2000 Alltel Communications Palmetto Cup, awarded to the South Carolina pro hockey team with the best head-to-head record against other South Carolina teams.

Just 13 games into Pee Dee’s 2000-01 season, however, Anzalone was fired. His next coaching job was his return to Lake Superior.

Frankly Speaking

When Anzalone was rehired by Lake Superior, Athletic Director Bill Crawford said, “The University has opted for someone who proved in the past that he can win. He has enormous respect for the traditions of Laker hockey. He established many of them.”

Said LSSU president Robert Arbuckle, “I was very impressed with Frank when I met him. He is a moral man, highly principled and ethical. I like that. He speaks his mind, but he makes sense. I like the fact that he considers himself a teacher. He is committed and focused and that tells me a lot about him.

“I know that he has a reputation for being difficult to deal with, but I think that we have to give him credit for being 11 years older than when he was here before, and recognize the fact that he is a coach, a winner everywhere that he has been. I think he will have the best interest of the program in mind.”

Anzalone himself says acknowledges that his departure from Lake Superior contributed to his reputation for being difficult. “I left here under very cloudy circumstances. The new president [Arbuckle] cleared the way … and there was no deterrent to me coming back.”

While he won’t elaborate on those “cloudy circumstances,” Anzalone points to the fishbowl nature of the head coaching position at Lake State, where the surrounding community is intensely focused on the school’s only Division I program.

“It only happens in places like this,” says Anzalone. “It was a scam. It was hard and it was difficult. Actually, it’s a very intriguing story. The new president checked the surface of it, had a bad taste in his mouth about it, and thought he could bring me back [and do the right thing].”

The stories surrounding Anzalone’s initial departure from Lake State center on his alleged bad-mouthing of the school’s athletic administration and the hockey program’s facilities, which he allegedly said were not good enough for a team that had recently won a national championship.

Ironically, Anzalone now praises the bare-bones facilities that existed back in his day, and says that part of the program’s recent demise was because Lake State sacrificed substance for style.

“It just seems that there was a big emphasis on cosmetic quality, which we weren’t really into,” says Anzalone. “We dressed in a very limited locker room, and had a very modest weight room … then we went to the ‘Gem of the North’ [Taffy Abel Arena], as it’s called.”

While Anzalone acknowledges that the newer facility can help with recruiting, he says that a nice rink isn’t what Laker hockey is about.

“It was different here. We were very, very strong in the weight room,” says Anzalone. “People say that all the time, but we were. We were strong, we were thick, we were accomplished. Our work ethic was unparalleled, and this was at a time before conditioning became an important part of the game.”

According to Anzalone, during his initial run as Laker head coach the players were unselfish. “If we had to be one-nothing, we would be one-nothing. The name on the front of the jersey was far more important than the one on the back.

“Once we got going in ’83, we steadily climbed and never let off. I know, because I was the author.

“I’m not saying there’s not another way to do this … but at the D-I level if there is another way to do this, no one has come up with this yet.”

Anzalone says that prioritizing work ethic and team pride is important because Lake Superior State “is not a Mecca of college hockey.”

“Lake Superior is a type of place … probably like 30 percent of other D-I schools, that has to compete with schools that are all D-I. Hockey is it here.”

As the author of Lake State’s previous hockey bestseller, Anzalone isn’t shy about saying what has happened in his absence, and what needs to be done now.

Part of the problem, says Anzalone, is recruiting. “The recruiting went national, when it used to be NAHL, USHL, Ontario and Saskatchewan.”

Competing for recruits with schools like Michigan and Michigan State is a mistake, says Anzalone. “A kid that likes a Michigan State may not like a Lake State, so we may not have found a kid that liked the things that made this place so special.

“When you leave the rink, you’re still at Lake Superior State, which is a small school.”

Anzalone says that many of the intangibles that once made Laker hockey great are lost — “and I don’t want to point any fingers” — and that the program has mistakenly sacrificed size for speed.

He says, “We’re rock-bottom now, and we’re just going to take some slow easy steps. We’re going to have to make no mistakes, and that’s hard.”

Rewriting the program will be made more difficult, says Anzalone by the nature of the local fans, and he points to late Maine head coach Shawn Walsh as his role model.

“Shawn did it in Maine … but it wasn’t only Shawn. The time was right. Here [Sault Ste. Marie] they’ve had hockey for 200 years and they’re kind of crusty over it. [The fans] think they’re scouts. They think they’re teachers of the game. They don’t come to the game with open minds, to root for the team.

“We’re missing that little peppiness, that little wackiness, that they had in Orono. That’s a battle.”

Early in the 2001-02 season, in an effort to find wackiness that will play in Sault Ste. Marie, Anzalone had his players wear small sandwich boards around their necks the day before a game. Players were required to wear them everywhere — to class, to dining halls — or risk discipline.

Said Anzalone at the time of the stunt, “Our players are walking around with signs. ‘It’s for free. Come see me.’ They’re doing it themselves and hoping that the students giggle at them.

“Our students literally live across the street from the rink. This humor makes students realize that [as Division I athletes] you’re not above them.”

Author, Author?

Anzalone and his staff cut no returning players during the offseason last year and stayed with the existing roster during the 2001-02 preseason training camp, but four players left the team in January, and unconfirmed rumors regarding the imminent departure of Adam Nightingale and his younger brother, recruit Jared’s, desire to back out of his commitment to LSSU are circulating.

While every team goes through a house-cleaning phase with the arrival of a new coach, Anzalone’s critics say that his public commentary about his own players goes too far and is a factor in Laker player turnover.

Anzalone is unfazed. “I’ve lasted in this game a long time, a long time. It’s one thing that I have, and that’s integrity.”

And his return to Lake Superior State was, says Anzalone, almost fated. Anzalone says that after his departure from Lake Superior State, the “situation festered over time,” and implies that he was blacklisted from the college game.

“I think for years I wanted to get back to college hockey. I almost had to take this [job] because I couldn’t get another college job.”

Now that’s salesmanship.