There were only 18.9 seconds left in the game, and the game between MSU and Boston College was tied, 1-1. Just seconds before, Justin Abdelkader had rung a shot off the post, but this time, he made sure not to miss. Abdelkader snapped the tie with his game-winning goal. But this was no ordinary game: it was the National Championship, the Spartans’ first in 21 years. It had been a rocky 2007 season for the Spartans, starting off as a lightly regarded No. 3 seed, and yet, they fought their way to the top.
Once the hockey season ended, however, the media attention did not. The MSU hockey team found themselves to be extra busy during the off-season, including a parade, a rally and even a trip to the White House. “We were all extremely busy, but with good things,” assistant coach Brian Renfrew said. Besides being the best collegiate hockey team in the nation, the Spartans went about their off-time the same as any other year. “The younger guys worked on their strength and speed, while other guys worked on their weaknesses,” Renfrew said.
So where does that leave the 2007 National Champions now? Nearly 11 months after the biggest win of their careers, and in the midst of their 2008 season, the MSU hockey team is back to business as usual.
[rick] During the pre-season poll event held at the Joe Louis Arena on Sept. 25, Michigan State was picked to finish first in the media poll, but just barely missed the top spot in the coaches’ poll. Even though they had the edge in first place votes, Miami beat out MSU for the top spot by one point. “We thought we’d be picked high in the polls – we were a year ago, too,” said Head Coach Rick Comley in a CCHA media press conference. “I think it shows that there is a level of respect for the players we have on our roster and the success that we enjoyed last year.”
Coming into the 2007-2008 season, the team knew that they would be the number one target on every team’s schedule. “We have to progress every game this season, and once we get to the tournament, we have to know that it is four games,” Bryan Lerg said at the beginning of the year.
For the first game of the year, the defending National Champs went to North Dakota to play the top-ranked Fighting Sioux, in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game. The Spartans unexpectedly found themselves in the middle of 11,738 “hostile” fans. MSU dropped its first season opener in three years by a score of 6-0. “It was actually a good and needed game for us,” Renfrew said. “After that game, our team was able to settle down and get back to playing Spartan hockey.”
Along with the new season, a new set of captains was called to lead the team. Senior forward Bryan Lerg was voted captain by his teammates. “It’s a great honor to be named captain, but it comes with a lot of responsibility,” Lerg said in an interview with Spartan Sports Podcasts. “You have to take control of the team on and off the ice, and you always have to be there to talk to the younger guys.” Along with Bryan, junior goaltender Jeff Lerg, junior forward Justin Abdelkader, junior forward Tim Kennedy, senior forward Chris Mueller and senior defenseman Daniel Vukovic were voted as alternate captains.
With strong captains and the pride of a national title, it is no surprise the hockey team is being considered a possible contender to repeat as national champs by the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) and many people in the hockey community. Fans that closely follow Spartan hockey know that the players coming back have more than enough talent to compete with the top teams in the nation. But the real question is whether the hockey team has earned the respect from the MSU student body. Is MSU now known as more than just a basketball school; one that also has a hockey powerhouse? “I don’t think there will ever be a team that overshadows the basketball team, but after winning the national championship, you can tell that the hockey team is becoming a more followed sport here on campus,” business freshman Stephen Grabowski said.
Along with the season’s additional hype, higher expectations and added pressure, higher attendance numbers usually accompany teams who win their respective championship title. As for MSU, the attendance numbers for games played at Munn Arena are pretty similar to last season. That could be because the Spartans just simply have loyal fans that come to see their team play whether they are national champions or not. However, there have been some noticeable changes at the team’s home games. “The parking lot is packed for almost every home game,” marketing freshman Phil Khozein said. “And you can tell that people are more hyped up because they are coming to the games early. It looks like the amount of cars for a basketball game.”
Although the ticket sales for home games have remained pretty constant, a great way to tell how much respect MSU has gained from other teams around the country is to compare rival teams’ attendance numbers when they play MSU, and their average home attendance numbers. So far in the season, when the Spartans come to town, the home team sells about 342 more tickets than usual. When MSU went to Ferris State to play, there was about an 850-person increase. And when MSU went up against the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, the game was sold out.
[stephen] Maybe the biggest measurement of how Spartan hockey has grown can been seen in the two biggest games of the year. On Jan. 25 and 26, the Spartans took on their archrival, the Wolverines of U-M. At the time, U-M was the top-ranked team in the country, and MSU was No. 5. “I think that because the two teams were so highly ranked, and so well-known across the country, it just added to the rivalry and made for two great games,” pre-med freshman Ian Hinton said. The Spartans took the first game at Ann Arbor in front of a sold-out crowd, winning for the first time at Yost Ice Arena in more than two years. In that game, Jeff Lerg posted a 26-save shutout, the eighth of his career.
The following night, the rivals met in East Lansing, in a game that proves MSU Hockey is finally getting the respect that it deserves. “In my five years of coaching at MSU, I have never seen Munn the way it was when we played U-M,” Coach Renfrew said. “Not only was it a sold-out game, but the fans were so heavily involved in the game.” Munn Ice Arena is listed as holding 6,470 seats, yet for the Michigan game, the number of people who attended the games was 7,072, more than 500 people over its full capacity, according to post-game coverage from the MSU Athletic site.
According to Renfrew, the first half of the season went pretty much as expected. “We beat the teams who we thought we were going to beat, and we lost to the tougher teams on our schedule.” He went on to say the only game the team felt as though they should have won was one of their two losses to Miami of Ohio. On back-to-back nights, the top-ranked Red Hawks came to East Lansing and won both games. The first game they lost by a score of 4-2, in a night in which the top-ranked Spartan power play went 0-8. The next night, the Spartans didn’t fare any better, as they dropped the game 3-1. Although the two losses to Miami were big, the mood in the locker room was still positive. “That’s the one thing about hockey; you play a lot of games and how you do down the stretch is much more important,” Comley said during a post-game interview.
The national championship title has the chance to change the face of MSU hockey in a way that has not been done in many years. MSU has always been known as a basketball school. With names such as Magic Johnson, Mateen Cleaves and Drew Neitzel, the team has established itself as a consistently winning program. But the success of the hockey program has started to rival this dominant sport. The last season in which the hockey team finished with a losing record was the 1990-1991 season. They have, in the past 25 years, won seven conference championships (2nd all-time in CCHA), 10 tournament championships and two National Championships. They have been to eight Frozen Fours (one of the final rounds of the NCAA Tournament) and lead the CCHA in all-time wins. And with the 2007 title under their belts, the hockey team’s campus support should start to measure up to their success.