Michigan State reaping the rewards of a better home atmosphere

If that old sports cliche that claims you’re only as good as your last game is true, then Michigan State is positively golden.

After losing on the road to Michigan 5-1 in the first game of a home-and-home series last Friday, the Spartans rebounded in a giant way Saturday, scoring 34 seconds into the game and going on to demolish the Wolverines 7-2 in front of a record-breaking Munn Ice Arena crowd of 7,225.

The atmosphere in the normally staid Munn Arena was charged in a way that I’d never witnessed in 17 years of covering CCHA hockey. When sophomore Matt Berry scored that early goal, the noise was deafening.

“It was the best I’ve seen it in a long, long time, probably the best since I’ve played here … or maybe when I was here in the ’90s when I coached,” said Tom Anastos, in his second year as Michigan State’s coach. “Part of it was certainly the rivalry and part of it was the way the game started.”

And part of it is pure design. You can’t have that kind of atmosphere without that many fans, without that many students and without a product that gives everyone something to cheer about. When Anastos was hired, I was as skeptical as anyone else about MSU’s decision. He hadn’t coached Division I hockey in a long, long time. He was stepping down as commissioner of the CCHA at what can best be called an awkward moment.

One thing I never doubted, though, was Anastos’ ability to promote. His business and public relations acumen is sublime. Anastos was hired, in part, to elevate the profile of the Michigan State hockey brand in the advent of the Big Ten hockey conference. One way to do that, Anastos knew, was to grow the student fan base.

“Three years ago, the year before I took this, the student section and the general attendance reached an all-time low,” Anastos said. “That’s been a point of emphasis and we need to get that back. I think it’s fair to say that people felt that the arena for a long time has been pretty bland.”

Bringing new life to Munn started with the students, Anastos said: “They’re the ones who can bring lots of energy and lots of fun.”

At the start of the 2011-12 season, the overtures Anastos made to students went beyond mere invitations. “When they came and picked up their student-section T-shirts, we gave them a tour of the facility, brought them down to the dressing room and brought them down to the ice,” Anastos said. “We took a team photo with them.”

Anastos even invited students to a pizza dinner, where players waited on students and then mingled with them as they ate.

The Spartans wanted the students to feel a part of the program from the beginning of the season all the way through the end. “At the end of the season,” Anastos said, “on our senior night, we invited all the seniors in the student section and the seniors in the band to come down to the ice.”

Anastos opened more seating up to students, too. “The other thing that we did last year that was pretty significant … was that we displaced some season ticket holders and we moved the student section right down to the glass,” Anastos said.

Not everyone was happy with that move, but the results are clear: four full sections of students devoted to the Spartans, a solid block of screaming, chanting, cheering — and loud — faithful.

“We’re awfully close to having a sellout in student season ticket sales,” Anastos said. “I think it makes it very collegiate. That’s the environment we want to sell in college hockey.”

The Spartans certainly sold it on Saturday night. By the time the game was 11 minutes old, MSU was up 4-1 on a team that had dominated it the night before. And there was a significant difference in atmospheres between Michigan’s Yost Ice Arena on Friday and Munn on Saturday — and Munn was the clear winner.

That charged climate was something that fed the MSU players. “With that crowd, they just gave us so much support,” said freshman goaltender Jake Hildebrand, who made 40 saves in his second career win. “It’s awesome. They give you so much confidence through the game.”

“They were really amped up,” Berry said. “It was great to see all the support they gave us today. It was really packed in there. Nice and loud every time we did something good.”

Creating that kind of atmosphere is essential to more than just ticket sales and the hockey program’s national profile. Anastos knows that a crowd like that can create an emotional climate that can fuel a hockey team, especially a team like the Spartans, with their 10 freshman and six sophomores, in just their second year of program transition.

Anastos said that it’s easy to motivate a veteran team but newer players lack a sense of urgency. “With an older team, their clock’s ticking,” Anastos said. “We have to manufacture that energy.”

And maintain that energy. For the past three weekends, the Spartans have fallen into a pattern of losing Friday nights and winning Saturdays, and in their last two series, they’ve won big on Saturdays. After losing 1-0 to Bowling Green on Nov. 2, MSU rebounded with a 6-1 win the following night.

“I wish I could figure out why, to be quite honestly,” Anastos said. “There were some strategic things that Bowling Green did that kept us from scoring that Friday.”

Anastos said the reasons for such a big win following a Friday loss remain a mystery but added, “I think a big part of that has to do with emotion.”

The emotional highs and lows are something that Anastos himself has to deal with. One of the reasons he took the job at MSU was because he wanted to work more directly with student-athletes.

“I thought it would be a real challenge,” he said. “I remember talking to my wife when the position was offered to me, and she said, ‘You should take it. You’ll have fun.’

“Yeah,” he joked, “it’s fun when we win.”

This week, the Spartans head to Oxford, Ohio, where they face No. 4 Miami.

Oh, snap!

When Bowling Green junior Andrew Wallace scored at 13:33 in the second period of BGSU’s 2-2 tie with Western Michigan last Saturday night, he snapped a goal-scoring drought that dated to Oct. 15, 2011, or 50 games.

Wallace had one goal and five assists in 43 contests last season.

A little crackle

Ferris State junior Justin DeMartino has three goals in 10 games this season. That’s two more than he had in 13 games last season and three more than he had in 18 games in 2010-11. DeMartino’s career stats for FSU are 4-7–11 after his two goals and single assist versus Lake Superior State last weekend.


Am I the only one who finds it a little funny that Penn State is second in the nation in penalty minutes, averaging 18.6 per game? Welcome back, Guy Gadowsky.

Players of the week

It must be difficult to choose players of the week this season, given the way nearly every series splits.

Rookie of the week: Miami forward Riley Barber, who had a goal and three assists in the RedHawks’ win over and tie against Northern Michigan. Barber is tied for first with Havard’s Jimmy Vesey among rookies in points per game (1.70). This is Barber’s second mention as ROTW.

Offensive player of the week: Michigan State sophomore forward Matt Berry, who had a hat trick plus an assist in MSU’s 7-2 win over Michigan last Saturday. Berry is the first Spartans player to be named POTW this season.

Defenseman of the week: Western Michigan junior Dennis Brown, who had two assists when WMU beat Bowling Green last Friday and the deciding goal in last Saturday’s shootout after the Falcons and Broncos tied. Brown is the third different Broncos player to be honored as DOTW this season.

Goaltender of the week: Alaska freshman John Keeney, who made 55 saves against Ohio State in Columbus as the Nanooks tied and defeated the Buckeyes. Keeney is the second Alaska goaltender to be honored this season.

My ballot

1. Boston College
2. Denver
3. Minnesota
4. New Hampshire
5. Notre Dame
6. Miami
7. North Dakota
8. Western Michigan
9. Michigan
10. Boston University
11. Dartmouth
12. Union
13. Ferris State
14. Colorado College
15. Northern Michigan
16. St. Cloud State
17. Harvard
18. Merrimack
19. Alaska
20. Lake Superior

Call me

Well, email me ([email protected]) or find me on Twitter (@paulacweston).