On The Road With @MSU_Hockey

On February 22, 2015, in The Spartan Life, by Scott Westerman

By Scott Westerman
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My trip to Madison with the Spartan heroes of MSU Men’s Hockey.

On the IceTo begin to understand another’s journey, you must walk in his shoes. That was my goal this past weekend as I traveled with the MSU Men’s Hockey Team to Wisconsin.

Our journey began at the corporate terminal at Lansing Capital Regional International Airport. A bus with the team’s equipment was already in Madison. The aircraft that accommodates a group this size can’t carry the hundreds of pounds of sticks, pads, helmets and uniforms that are the tools of the ice trade so ours felt a lot like a commuter hop to Detroit.

The underpinning of every excellent athletic organization is an equally gifted supporting cast. The operations team, a trainer, a doctor, a videographer, student managers and 5 of us civilians, 45 in all comprise the travel compliment. It’s easy to see why winning programs require financial resources that stretch beyond ticket and concession revenue. As the team bus arrived on the tarmac, I felt a wave of gratitude for the Spartan Fund and the men and women of vision who write the checks to invest in champions.

A minus 25 wind chill stung our faces as we climbed the steps to enter the cramped confines of the charter. I’m continually amazed when I see the kids out of uniform. On the ice, they become motor geniuses, a plethora of personal brands to be celebrated, second guessed and devoured by the  insatiable appetite of a 24 hour sports media beast. But without their superhero garb, they are no different than the other students I see braving the frozen tundra. Their travel bags are filled with books, laptops and homework, assignments with deadlines that don’t bend to meet practice and travel schedules.

While this team boasts many NHL draftees, everyone here realizes that one day, their bodies will no longer generate a primary income stream. One day, they will earn a living with their brains. Much of their free time on this trip will be dedicated to preparing their intellect with the same intensity they exert on the ice.

One of the main benefits of being a student athlete is that your days are carefully scheduled. Show up where you’re supposed to be and the organization takes it from there. Thirty seven minutes after takeoff, another bus greets us. We are bound for the Madison Doubletree, home to the temporary residents who provide competition for Wisconsin’s broad portfolio of varsity sports. Carolyn Eggenberger is my handler. She gives me my  keys and a list of every other participant, along with their room assignments. Earlier in the week, Carolyn emailed the full itinerary. I intend to parallel every team activity to try to get a feel for what it’s like to look at the world through a the steel mesh of a Spartan hockey helmet.

Tom AnastosMy benefactor is head coach Tom Anastos. Next month will mark his fourth anniversary as the central pivot of our men’s hockey program. We became fast friends soon after his arrival, two Spartan alumni who found ourselves back on campus impacting lives, in our own way, just as the likes of Amo Bessone and Ron Mason impacted ours.

I have contributed to my share of turn-arounds. Rebuilding a dynasty takes time and the hockey program is only just now beginning to show glimmers of greatness. The hardest part is enduring what feels like an unending string of setbacks. The team plays with energy, intensity and focus. But until this year, this month, the sense that we might just be on the road to greatness has been illusive. The Spartans are finally beginning to gel. I see it in the easy camaraderie they exhibit off the ice and a competitive game time vibe on the ice that challenges everyone involved to give their best effort.

Soon after we settle into our hotel rooms, we are on the bus again for The Kohl Center. The Kohl is a sprawling multi-purpose venue that morphs from ice arena to basketball court to wrestling mat to concert hall, often exhibiting multiple personalities within the same 24 hour period. We see that it’s set up for a Lady Badger basketball game with Maryland, relegating our practice to a serviceable facility within the complex dedicated to the women’s hockey program.

It seems incredible that, once upon a time, people didn’t treat student athletes of both genders with equanimity. Title 9 drove that cultural evolution and today, we are its beneficiaries. The visitor’s locker room has been well prepared by our advance team. Athletes are just like the rest of us. They have comfortable routines that turn the internal ferocity of competition down a notch. Lockers are assigned to maximize energy, minimize distractions and promote the chemistry that separates the exceptional from the ordinary. And so it is that our accoutrements here mirror Munn‘s locker room arrangement as closely as is architecturally possible. I’m invited into the private room reserved for the coaches. Ron Boyd and John Draeger are watching video of their Penn State performance with assistant coach Kelly Miller. The atmosphere is almost like that of a library. Coach Miller brings a quiet intensity to the proceedings. It’s circle of radiation encompasses the two defensemen and quickly ropes in my attention.

Kohl Arena From Above

From above, a hockey rink is divided into smaller fields of battle. How the enemy enters your territory determines your defensive strategy. Every sector has it’s strengths and weaknesses and proper troop placement is essential to protecting goalie Jake Hildebrand from incoming howitzer fire. Coach Miller’s 15 years of NHL battle tested experience is on display here. He demonstrates how minute adjustments can mean the difference between protection and penetration. Ron and John drink it all in. 

Likewise, an offensive attack is akin to an aerial dogfight, where fighter planes pass a single rocket between themselves until one has the best shot at the target. By any sane analysis, scoring appears to be an impossibility.

Practice is carefully divided into exercises to sharpen passing and shooting, offense and defense, with speed laps in between. The forty minutes spent here is just a tune up for Friday night. The fundamentals have long been sharpened, each man’s assets and weaknesses are well documented. Today’s exercise is much like the last mileage before a marathon. If the mojo isn’t inculcated by now, it won’t be tomorrow.

Lisa Byington, the ubiquitous sports journalist who will cover the game on the Big Ten Network watches from the stands. The press, especially those on television, have a true symbiotic relationship with their coaching counterparts. It is an arranged marriage that both parties alternately appreciate and dislike. The reporters must ask the sometimes tough questions that attract a loyal audience. The coaches want favorable promotion of their programs. Recruits and their parents can be just as influenced by the commentary as they are by the game, so sound bytes that put the good and the bad in the proper context are the golden nuggets that coaches hope will be picked up and promoted. Journalists learn from experience to sniff these things out and come to the task with the cynicism of a veteran beat cop. Athletes and those who lead them share an equal measure of distrust, worrying that sensation may trump reality. It’s an uneasy mating dance.

The bus is loaded with our non combatant passengers as the team files aboard for the ride to Prime Quarter, a grille-it-yourself steak house. My travel schedule provides many opportunities to overextend an appropriate food intake, so I opt for small portions and a maximum of the green stuff that Colleen insists will prolong the quality and quantity of my life. My tiny fillet looks like an island surrounded by the continental sized steaks that are essential fuel for athletic bodies. Villam Haag and I discuss his post graduation plans. He’s an advertising major with a hint of his Swedish heritage accenting our conversation. It strikes me again how unaffected this team is by the white hot attention that often surrounds student athletes. Villam is a truly nice guy. He reminds me (they all remind me) of what my own son, Brandon, was like at this age. Approachable, friendly and still trying to figure out how to create a rewarding, productive life.

I pick a corner seat at the team table and talk with Jake about our favorite NHL goalies. this is a subject he has studied carefully, integrating the best of their moves into his own toolkit. It’s a collection that has served him well. With reasonable fighter protection from his defensemen, it’s rare that a puck gets past him. There are three of us at the table who own Green & White Shinola watches, Mackenzie MacEachern, Michael Ferrantino and I, so that becomes a topic of conversation. But the bulk of the dialogue isn’t much different from what you would hear at Brody Square at any given meal time. These are normal kids.

We return to the hotel at around 9:30. Coach Anastos gives the team a little later wake up call than originally planned. Four of us adults repair to the bar to talk about the day. Sherraine Pencil from MSU’s Office of Compliance Services joins Tom, Kelly, Carolyn and me. We all select a glass of our favorite style of red wine and the conversation soon turns to things other than hockey. We come to the present from circuitous paths and I enjoy hearing tales of other fascinating careers. These are men and women of true depth, who have the same hopes and fears as the rest of us. By the time we head for the elevators, we know a little more about one another. Common ground is revealed. Friendships are deepened.

I resolve to experience game day in total parallel with the team. Breakfast is at 9 and immediately afterward we head to the arena. It has been transformed into a hockey venue. The confines are larger than Munn with another ten feet of ice behind each goal. Jake recognizes this immediately. Coach Miller will later point out the risks in the corners with a reminder that, “nobody ever scores a goal from behind the net.” This practice is even shorter. Just twenty minutes. We’re back in the hotel by eleven watching videos detailing Wisconsin’s offensive attack. They are in the midst of a season of struggle, but won a game last week and will come into tonight’s contest with some renewed confidence. And something to prove. It’s a feeling our guys know all too well.

There is time for the kids to finish homework, take a nap and “hang out”. The wheels of the MSU Alumni Association continue to turn, even when I travel, so I open up the laptop and wade through a mountain of email until it’s time for the 3PM team meal.

The food is serviceable, not quite up to the standards delivered by MSU’s Culinary Services Team. But it gets the job done. Refueled, it’s back to the bus and off again to the Kohl.

“You wait a lot.” That’s what Coach Anastos tells me as we sat in the visiting coaches locker room. And, “The waiting,” as Tom Petty famously puts it, “is the hardest part.”

The team begins their pre-game rituals. “Uptown Funk“, the latest Bruno Mars creation blares through a speaker in the locker room. Director of Hockey Operations, Phil Osaer, attends to the vagaries of the house television system so that we can grab the all-important video for post game review. Videographer Justin Garrant checks the batteries on his camera. Athletic Trainer, Dave Carrier, glances at the contents of his go-box. After three decades he knows instantly, instinctively if everything is where it should be. The team’s student managers do their thing, nearly invisible but essential to the successful functioning of the program. A Big Ten rep comes to ask for the starting line-up. All of this sounds frenetic on paper, but there ends up being a lot of time to wait and think. Will we capitalize on the Penn State sweep? Ohio State gave us a gift with a strong win over Michigan earlier tonight and all at once our kids have the opportunity to move toward first place in the conference. But are we ready?

The energy is high when Coach Anastos gives his pre-game speech. There are cheers as the starters are announced. And before we know it, it’s game time.

Few sensations compare to being at ground zero during an NCAA Division 1 contest. I’ve stood behind Tom Izzo and Suzy Merchant at the Brez and have witnessed touchdown plays develop from the edge of the field at Spartan Stadium. But hockey holds a special place in my heart. Growing up in Ann Arbor, we laced up skates whenever and wherever we could. Hockey Night In Canada was required prime time viewing for any kid who could pick up Channel 9 in Windsor. Gordie Howe was our hero and nothing could beat the feeling of firing that black circular piece of compressed rubber into a well protected net.

Tonight I get to witness all of this from the team box at ice-side.

“The first rule,” Coach Anastos says, “Always keep your eye on the puck. It can come at you quick when you are this close.”

I know that one well, having taken a line shot to the face many years ago. A concussion rattles the hard drive in your head, slamming your brain into a circular loop of confusion and locking your short term memory into a three minute box. You ask the same questions over and over and forget them almost as soon as they are answered. I don’t intend to miss imprinting every minute of this evening into my memory banks.

I must have watched literally hundreds of hockey games in my time. But witnessing it like this, up close and personal, compresses time. The puck drops and before you know it the PA announcer is saying, “One minute left in the period.” Lines changes are fast and furious. The players become extensions of one another, yelling encouragement and intel as they jump in and out of the box. The dedicated spectator develops a players sixth sense It’s possible to see the action begin to develop. You instinctively feel when a combatant is outside of his box and can visualize every vector to the goal. But even real time can compress beyond our ability to perceive it.The laws of time and space seem to bend. Mistakes are made and points are scored in this place. Those who can effectively exist in such an unnerving environment become stars.

As close as this team may be to one another as men, they fail to congeal tonight. A nano-second’s distraction, the tiniest reduction in speed, a momentary lapse in focus; these are the things that distinguish the victorious from the vanquished in the rarified altitude of elite athletic endeavor. And ours is still a young program, often uneven, prone to both greatness and disappointment. Our defense provides two opportunities too many and the Badgers slip a pair past Jake Hildebrand to cement a 2-0 lead in the second. Even though we out shoot our opponents 33-18, Wisconsin’s all-conference goaltender, Joel Rumpel turns 32 of our scoring thrusts away. Only Joe Cox finds an opening, assisted by Ryan Keller and Michael Ferrantino.

When the final horn sounds, we come up short, 3-2.

This team knows what happened. Coach Anastos made that crystal clear during the second intermission. Why it happened is harder to discern. Did the Penn State sweep give us undeserved confidence? Was there something we could have done to better prepare? Or is this just part and parcel of a program that is still finding its center?

It’s easy for spectators to over analyze. This is the province of armchair analysts, and those who purchase ink by the barrel. The actual inhabitants of this arena feel its outcomes with a far more visceral introspection. Victories are easily and magnanimously shared with the team. Dealing with a setback is intensely personal. It’s a grieving process every bit as complex as the Kubler Ross continuum. Those who can sustain excellence allow themselves to work through each stage, compartmentalizing when necessary to re-focus on the adjustments that are essential to winning… the next time.

For that is the ultimate aim of every endeavor: to live to fight another day.

“I never lose. I win or I learn.” This is the phrase that those in search of excellence internalize. By the time we’ve finished the post game meal at the hotel, iPads have been loaded with video from today’s game. Those who would win tomorrow will dissect each scenario tonight, replaying every sequence in their mind. It is in this ephemeral theater that they will sharpen their awareness of what is happening around them, pre-playing what they expect to encounter tomorrow, this time being in the right place at the right moment to take the right actions.

Wisconsin will also adjust. They are in the best possible position, coming into the series with a confidence building win and a season of suffering for which they intend to atone.

How we apply what we learned from last night’s experience will speak volumes about who we are and what we will become.

Saturday dawns and Coach Anastos clears the room of every distraction. From now on, only he, coach Miller and the players will interact. It’s time to close the doors to the monastery and concentrate on the precepts with zen-like precision.

He tells me later that it’s a phone conversation with his wife that flips his own switch. “You need to get back in the game and lead these kids,” she says. If you are married to a coach there are moments when you become the coach. Coach Anastos banishes last night’s emotions from his mind and inspiring words emerge. Tonight the locker room is a different place. The moment a team becomes one is something you have to experience to understand. It’s the athlete’s ultimate high. A well prepared, deeply connected team can be unstoppable.

That’s exactly what happens tonight. The metamorphosis is stunning. From the banter on the bench to the acuity of the execution, these Spartans came to play. They gave Jake Hildebrand an important shutout. One more this season and he will be the best defender in the league. Penn State beats Minnesota in overtime, leveling the playing field. Statistically speaking this team stands right where they stood coming into Friday’s contest. All sins are forgiven. They remain in control their own destiny.

There are still many areas where this team can improve. But they were able to  capitalize on failure as the learning experience it always is. And prevailed, as “Spartans Will.”

It’s just after midnight, Eastern Time, as our charter climbs into the Wisconsin night sky. I gaze at the stars. Their comforting steadfastness clears my mind and I begin to ponder all that I’ve seen and learned this weekend.

The Night Sky

At the forefront is a deep gratitude to Tom Anastos and his team for allowing me access to their most personal moments. It’s not easy to open one’s heart to others. In a profession surrounded by the judgmental, authenticity is the greatest gift a person can give. Tom gave that to me in abundance.

I’m also grateful to my good friend, Mark Hollis for continually demonstrating how athletics truly is a microcosm of existence. Every emotion humanity is capable of feeling is played out on this small stage. Our, parents, teachers, mentors and coaches will do what they can to educate and inspire, but in the end, each team member knows that future outcomes are always the result of sustained individual contribution. There are no secrets to success. It is how we consistently apply knowledge, skill sets, awareness and execution in the direction of achievement that determine the extent of our triumphs.. or travail.

This is the essential lesson life can illuminate for each of us. Many will assign blame for their situation to others. The currency of accountability is available to all. And yet, only the few see it as the gold mine it truly is.  Enlightened Spartans come to understand that we are all self made. Only the accomplished will admit it.

As I re-read this post one final time, the lights of the Lansing airport come into view. I’m struck by the fact that after 60 years of life, I, too, still have much to learn.

Elie Wiesel‘s words dance through the halls of  my jumbled mind palace, laughing at the successes and failures I have filed there, and whispering a warning: “Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself.”


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