Comley is leaving and the game is changing

This isn’t the column I planned for this week. Not completely, anyway.

By now you’ve heard that Michigan State coach Rick Comley announced his retirement effective at the end of the 2010-11 season. In his press conference Tuesday, Comley touched on a lot of things (some of which I’ve already mentioned in my CCHA blog), but one thing that struck me repeatedly was the way in which the changes in the business aspect of hockey have forced changes to the way in which Comley coaches — and he’s not a happy man about that.

The University of Wisconsin Badgers and Michigan State University Spartans played to a 4-4 tie in their College Hockey Showcase matchup on Saturday, November 24, 2007, at Munn Ice Arena in East Lansing, Michigan. (Melissa Wade)
Rick Comley announced this week that he's retiring after 38 seasons as a college hockey head coach (photo: Melissa Wade).

“I’m really frustrated with the early departures,” said Comley, “you know, and the difficulty in recruiting, and in keeping kids, and not being able to build a team that carries over year to year. That’s where my greatest frustration comes from. But I love the game still.”

Forwards Andrew Rowe and Corey Tropp and defenseman Jeff Petry left the Spartans last summer; together, Rowe and Tropp took 37 goals with them. Last season, MSU averaged 3.03 goals per game and finished second; this year, the Spartans are scoring 2.62 per game and are just out of the cellar.

Of course, the Spartans aren’t alone in losing good players to the professional ranks. Between the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, 40 players with eligibility remaining opted to leave the Division I ranks. That number was more than double the number who chose to do so the year before and the largest number ever to vacate eligibility during an offseason.

When the college hockey talent pool is already diluted because of the aggressive competition from Canadian major junior leagues for NCAA-eligible young players and the sheer number of professional opportunities available for young players who aren’t necessarily keen on getting an education, the NHL’s current collective bargaining agreement — with its salary cap — makes it difficult for professional franchises to resist the pull of young talent that can be signed relatively cheaply. Of course, it’s often difficult for the young talent to resist the pull of the money offered.
As a result, many good players are leaving early and many more will follow.

In the case of Michigan State, all three of its marquee players departed before the start of the season and none in time for the program to figure out an adequate way to deal with it. Sure, MSU isn’t the only program dealing with this, but just look at where Michigan is in the standings in a rare season when every Wolverines player returned to play. Every program struggles with this, but the big-name programs struggle with it to a greater extent. This isn’t the game that Comley once coached, and he knows it.

“My favorite part of the job is still recruiting and being in the rinks,” said Comley. “It’s more difficult to do it now for whatever reason than it used to be, but that aspect — being in rinks and watching players — that’s still my most favorite part of the job.”

Comley’s departure, Penn State going Division I, the renewed talk of something Big Ten-ish — none of these things exists in a vacuum. If there’s big money to be made in college hockey, then someone’s going to make it. Fans of college basketball have already seen this. Big money comes at a big price.

This is the part of the changing face of college hockey that I’ve been dreading. College hockey doesn’t have the talent pool that college basketball does. (I’m talking sheer numbers here.) Down the road, there may be little place for excellent coaches like Comley in this changing landscape, or people who would have otherwise gone into coaching may opt themselves to go pro, so to speak, and work for franchises as scouts — recognizing talent rather than developing it — or in some other capacity.

The haves will have more, the have nots will not, and because there is less talent to go around, the sport itself will diminish. Instead of “growing the sport” — a popular catchphrase now — the changes will only inflate specific wallets.

Then there’s the loss of what we love about our niche sport, that intangible thing that separates it from football and basketball and makes it far more likeable.

I know. It sounds dark. It’s late January and one of my favorite coaches just quit. But I don’t think I’m far off the mark.

A little levity

In the presser announcing his impending retirement, Comley said some things that made me chuckle, like telling the press, “My grandkids, they know nothing but Sparty.” This was Comley’s way of assuring everyone that he’ll remain a fan of Michigan State.

In speculating on what he’d do post-MSU, Comley gave the press this:

“Do I think I’ll coach anywhere else? No, I don’t. Do I think I’ll do anything else in hockey? I might. Might I go to Florida? I might. I don’t want to sit here and make this what it isn’t.”

He also said that he and his wife would return to the city where he built a college hockey program from scratch. “I’m a Yooper,” said Comley. “I’m not sure I want to be in the snow, but we’ll go back to Marquette in some variety.”

What I loved most, though, was the way he ended the announcement. Said Comley, “Interesting to go from this to practice, though, isn’t it?”

There are other things going on, too

Last weekend marked the end of Alaska’s annual two-week, midseason trip to the Lower 48, and the Nanooks have little to show for the long way they traveled.

“It’s been almost two years since we haven’t gotten a point on a weekend, but I don’t think that’s the big picture right now,” UAF coach Dallas Ferguson said last Saturday after Michigan swept Alaska in Ann Arbor. “I thought that we did a lot of good things. We did a lot of good things but at the end of the day, you’ve got to have good execution.”

Although the Nanooks were outscored by one goal in the four-game trip (9-8), the only points they took were from a 4-1 win over Notre Dame Saturday, Jan. 15. Last weekend, the Wolverines won two very close games, 2-0 Friday and 4-3 Saturday.

“It’s a tough one to swallow,” said Ferguson. “I didn’t say a whole lot in the locker room after this one, but we’ll get back to work on Monday and we’ve got to keep pushing forward.

“It’s always something we look at as an important part of our season is to get points on our Christmas trip because many trips we haven’t got any and we didn’t even play well, but right now we felt we played four good games. Obviously, we got one win, but against quality opponents.”

With an overall record of 10-10-4 (7-9-4-2 CCHA), the Nanooks are one of the most under-the-radar teams in college hockey. They play harder and block more shots than any team I’ve seen this season. They play disciplined hockey. Goaltender Scott Greenham is more than merely solid. Alaska’s record is a lesson in how statistics can mislead.

“That’s one thing as a group, you want to make sure that everybody’s leaving everything they have on the ice, and I can say that about our team,” Ferguson said after Saturday’s loss. “Everybody chipped in. Guys stepped up and played hard. We had an opportunity to win the hockey game.

“Definitely proud of our team and the effort we put forth on this road trip, but sometimes it’s a tough one to swallow when you give that type of effort toward your game and you don’t get results. Got a good group of kids that work hard and they compete hard and they’ve got to keep believing in themselves. We’ve got a nice opportunity with eight games left and six of them are at home.”

This is a trip the Nanooks take every year, scheduling back-to-back road series and remaining in Michigan for a week during their midseason break, and Ferguson said that the routine is nearly always the same. They spend time in Grand Rapids, practicing and training at Walker Ice & Fitness Center. “We’ve held up there six of the last seven years I’ve been here,” said Ferguson. “We get good practice times and we’ve got the ability to get in and get light workouts and weight training.”

Staying somewhere other than the city where they’ll meet their next opponent is important for the Nanooks, said Ferguson. “I think teams get a little uncomfortable if they practice right after each other.”

Now, however, it’s back to Fairbanks, where classes began for the Nanooks Jan. 20. “We’ve got to get back to Fairbanks, get ourselves acclimated to home and get ready to play on home ice.
We head right back into it so we’ll have to manage our time wisely as guys get acclimated to getting back in school after a month off.”

Alaska hosts Ohio State in two games this weekend.


Here’s a strange story from TSN that came to my attention via my good USCHO colleague Matt Mackinder. Former Wolverines forward Jason Bailey (2005-07) is suing the Anaheim Ducks for damages, charging Bakersfield Condors coach Marty Raymond with anti-Semitism and Condors assistant coach Mark Pederson with “severe and/or pervasive harassment.”

Bailey played 35 games with the Condors (ECHL) in 2007-08 and has been with the Binghamton Senators (AHL) since 2009.

My ballot

Here’s the top 20 as I see it this week. Note that I was one of four people who didn’t put Yale at the top of the list. I’m so clearly anti-East Coast.

1. Boston College
2. North Dakota
3. Yale
4. Michigan
5. Minnesota-Duluth
6. Denver
7. Wisconsin
8. New Hampshire
9. Nebraska-Omaha
10. Notre Dame
11. Maine
12. Boston University
13. Rensselaer
14. Merrimack
15. Union
16. Miami
17. Colorado College
18. Western Michigan
19. Dartmouth
20. Ohio State