The last meeting between two legendary coaches?

When Michigan and Michigan State faced off for their last regular-season battle last Saturday, two legendary coaches were facing off for perhaps the last time in their careers. MSU’s Rick Comley and UM’s Red Berenson are two of the best in the business and Comley’s hiring at MSU heightened what was already one of the best rivalries in collegiate sports.

University of Michigan captain Carl Hagelin congratulates Spartan coach Rick Comley on his win. (Erica Treais)
Was it the last time Michigan State coach Rick Comley will face Michigan before retiring at the end of the season? (photo: Erica Treais)

That the game was as good as it was didn’t surprise me. I knew that the struggling Spartans would play hard for a coach they admire and respect, and I knew that the Wolverines would — in many ways — play even harder. I didn’t expect one of the best games I’ve seen all season and certainly the best contest between these two teams in recent memory, nor did I expect a packed house of 17,577 fans, a head count that was by no means inflated.

The significance of the night was lost on no one. Before fielding a question, in his opening remarks to the press, Berenson said: “Rick Comley’s a classy coach. I don’t know if that’s the last time I’ll coach against him, but it’s been an honor.”

Some of Comley’s own players downplayed that aspect of the match, the recent announcement of Comley’s retirement, probably because they didn’t want to make too big a deal out of something that certainly is very big to them and everyone who knows the man who’s spent nine years behind the Spartans bench and devoted his entire professional life to college hockey.

Fortunately, MSU captain and sophomore Torey Krug had no problem telling the press exactly what we all suspected. Pulled out of the locker room before he had a chance to shower, Krug greeted the press with his characteristic, genuinely friendly smile and told us that the 2-1 win was “huge” for the Spartans program because it meant tying the season series at two games apiece — and something more.

“Any time you step on the ice against Michigan, you want to come out on top for the whole Spartan nation,” said Krug. “As a team, we kind of came together and said, ‘Hey, let’s do this for coach.’ He’s had so much success, and he deserves nothing better than to go out on top.”

Comley himself said, “That was good. Big, fun hockey game.”

When asked if he enjoyed this win, specifically, given all the recent news, Comley delivered a line only Rick Comley can deliver: “I’ve enjoyed every win.”

I hate to lapse into cliches, but there was a real change in the air at that game. Comley wore a brave face, but there was a touch of understandable sadness in everything he said. There was a lot of speculation in the press box about his replacement — and I honestly don’t know who’s on any possible list, a list that is probably complicated by the opening in Happy Valley, too — but the talk turned often to Berenson, who is 71 years old this year, after all. He can’t coach forever, even if he looks and sounds as though he will.

Personally, I think Comley was given the bum’s rush — there I go with the cliches again — and even though I heard many people say that it was time for a change, I can’t imagine a coach of this caliber being pushed out of any other program. He won a national championship four years after he was hired, and that wasn’t that long ago. I’m sure that Michigan State will hire a competent replacement, but there’s no way they can hire the best person for the job, because that’s the guy who’s retiring.

They played hockey Saturday, too

It was a great game. The teams exchanging goals within the final minute of the second period, the game-winner igniting the crowd in the third, Michigan’s Shawn Hunwick and Michigan State’s Will Yanakeff putting on a show in net — it was big fun, to paraphrase Comley.

One of the most interesting things about the game was the combination of Spartans Dean and Jake Chelios on the fourth MSU line. They combined for the first goal of the night and it was the second time this season they’ve combined for a marker in Joe Louis Arena. The Chelios brothers connected on the power play, when Jake fed Dean in the second period of MSU’s 5-3 win over Michigan Tech in the third-place game of this season’s Great Lakes Invitational tourney.

I asked Comley if remembering that goal was the reason why he put the brothers together on a line. “No.” He chuckled and raised his eyebrows. “You should’ve told me.”

It’s MSU’s lack of scoring that prompted the combination. “We needed something at Ferris to try to get us going, and I put Dean Chelios to center — which he’s never played — and Jake to left wing, and that line sparked us up at Ferris,” said Comley. The Spartans lost to Ferris State Jan. 27, two nights prior to this win.

“Right now,” said Comley, “you’re kind of searching for every possible thing that might help you win a game.”

Averaging 2.54 goals per game, the Spartans are 40th in the country for scoring offense.

Speaking of offense …

Five CCHA teams have offenses averaging even fewer goals than the Spartans are: Northern Michigan (2.36/45th in the nation); Alaska and Lake Superior (2.35/t46th); Ferris State (2.21/54th); Bowling Green (2.00/55th).

Which leads me to …

… the PairWise Rankings, which Jayson Moy explains clearly in this week’s Bracketology. If the season were to end today, three teams from the CCHA would be in. Michigan is tied for eighth (with New Hampshire) in the PWR, while Notre Dame and Western Michigan are tied for 10th. That leaves one very obvious team out: Miami.

It’s a mystery to me why the RedHawks are struggling as they are this season. From the dots out, they are a phenomenal team. That Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp aren’t putting up the numbers they did in net last season is clear, but why isn’t the team responding in front of the duo that’s fueled them to two previous Frozen Four appearances? I don’t get it.

Comley said after Saturday’s game that he thinks the Wolverines are the best team in the country, top to bottom — and he may be close to the truth there. They are absolutely contenders — for anything. I’m comfortable saying the same thing about Notre Dame, and — frankly — the RedHawks, should they put themselves in a position to get there.

Western Michigan? I’m not so sure, and that’s no disrespect to the Broncos. Senior Jerry Kuhn is having a career season, and he’s been in net for WMU’s 11-game unbeaten streak.

Western will be sorely tested these next four weeks. The Broncos are at home against Bowling Green this weekend, but then they face Miami, Michigan, and Notre Dame to end the season, and five of those final six regular-season games will be on the road; the series against the Fighting Irish is a home-and-home.

And speaking of Western Michigan …

… check out my feature on WMU first-year coach Jeff Blashill.

A little disclosure. Many CCHA fans know this already, but I’ve had a connection to the Blashill family since 1998, when I first met Jeff’s younger brother, Tim, who played hockey at my alma mater, Fredonia State. Tim Blashill was a student in a writing class my closest friend, Elizabeth Delaney Hoffman, taught at Fredonia at the time. She brought Tim to Big Rapids to see Jeff play his last collegiate game, I traveled up from Columbus for that, and I met most of the Blashill clan that night.

I met a few more of the Blashill clan in 2008, at the CCHA championship tournament in Detroit. Jim Blashill, Jeff’s dad, taught for a long time at Lake Superior State. I teach with people at Mott Community College in Flint, Mich., who know Jim. Michigan is the biggest small town I know.

And speaking of Lake Superior State …

… I don’t know any more than anyone else about what happened to get LSSU coach Jim Roque into hot water with the league.

I do know that Roque filed a report with the Sault Ste. Marie police after a Jan. 15 home game between the Lakers and Spartans. I do not know the nature of the exchange between Roque and assistant referee Mike Poliski — and I mean that I know nothing, other than that there were words exchanged.

Roque was given a one-game suspension by the CCHA following that game, for a violation of the league’s Good Conduct Regulations. He served his suspension Friday, Jan. 21, when the Lakers tied the Broncos in Sault Ste. Marie.

That was the same day that the Soo Evening News ran a story quoting Roque as saying, “I had to call the police and file a complaint against him. All I wanted to do is ask how they were giving me seven minutes of penalties in the last 10 minutes of the game.”

Roque then said that the officials refused to talk to him or approach the Lakers bench to get his lineup for the shootout — something I had confirmed by neutral parties who attended the game.

“I think that’s uncalled for,” Roque told the Evening News. “I got fined $1,000 five years ago for saying something bad about the refs in the paper. The guy can threaten my life and nothing happens to him? I just think that’s wrong.”

So, what happened to Roque after that story appeared? Another $1,000 fine from the league.

The Kenneth Godfrey Marrow Drive Registry Event

This is a very good thing. If you’re anywhere near Marquette this weekend and thinking of attending the Wildcats’ series with the Lakers, consider registering your bone marrow to help patients with leukemia.

The Kenneth Godfrey Marrow Drive Registry Event will take place this Friday and Saturday at Vandament Arena from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. both nights.

Northern Michigan athletic director Ken Godfrey has leukemia but has recently been told of a potential bone marrow match. This is Godfrey’s idea, in the hope that other folks going through the same thing can have a better chance at finding matches themselves.

For more information, call 906-227-2519.

The kids are all right

Every once in a while, I’m delightfully reminded that the players we follow in college hockey are simply college kids. Like a lot of longtime college hockey fans, I’m much older than the players are and I sometimes fall prey to cynicism that piggybacks on a certain amount of life experience.

That’s why some players are just plain refreshing.

Just this week, former Miami RedHawks captain and current Edmonton Oilers player Ryan Jones — known for his hard-hitting, instigating ways on the ice back in Oxford — posted through Twitter a link to a video advocating free hugs. This is an innocent project that was videotaped in Hollywood, an effort to improve peoples’ moods.

Jones — big, bad Ryan Jones — wrote that he thought that this should happen “in every other city in the world.”

Then on Groundhog Day, just this week, Michigan goaltender Shawn Hunwick tweeted, “Just learned studying goes a long way.”

The college teacher in me is so happy to hear this but also wonders why Hunwick, a senior, is “just” learning this now.

My ballot

Here is the top 20 as I see it. Looks like I wasn’t alone this week.

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

Video: Michigan State’s Will Yanakeff:


Video: Michigan State’s Torey Krug:


Video: Michigan State coach Rick Comley:


Video: Michigan State’s Jake Chelios:


Video: Michigan coach Red Berenson: