It felt like an autumn day is supposed to in East Lansing, Michigan. The sky was a clear cerulean blue, the air cool, leaves changing on the trees. It was a perfect prelude to winter and the start of a new hockey season.
Michigan State University Head Coach Tom Anastos met with sports media on Wednesday, September 30 at Munn Ice Arena for his first press conference of the 2015/2016 Big Ten Conference hockey season. With less than a week until the official start of season, the fifth year coach outlined his confidence in the team that he plans to use to bring home a Big Ten Championship and perhaps even a national title.
Anastos is clearly pleased with his returning team. In fact, 20 Spartan players – including 12 forwards and five defensemen – are returning from last year. Among this group, All-America, Big Ten Player and Goaltender of the Year Jake Hildebrand and forward MacKenzie MacEachern, both named Big Ten “Players to Watch” this week in the pre-season coaches’ poll. That same poll listed the Spartans as the number three team in the Big Ten this year. MacEachern, along with Captain Michael Ferrantino and Alternate Joe Cox also were 20+ point producers last year.
Of Hildebrand, Anastos stated he “wants to win.” The bench boss went on to say that Hildebrand had a great off-season, is in peak shape, and is a leader. In Anastos’ words, “his team will rise around him.” He was equally complimentary of MacEachern, noting the exceptional condition with which he returned to school this year. Assuming more of a leadership role with the team, Anastos spoke to MacEachern’s ability to “not just work harder, but work smarter.”
While the 2014/2015 season started off slowly for Michigan State, by late December they had started to settle down and ultimately mounted a comeback that ended the regular season in second-place, just two points behind the Minnesota Golden Gophers. With the large number of experienced returning players, Anastos intends to pick up right where the season ended last year and to start this year as a strong and aggressive opponent. He is challenging his team to meet that commitment by lining up games against Boston College, North Dakota, and Denver, all teams in the top five of the USCHO pre-season poll, and seven of the Spartans first 13 games are against top-15 teams in the poll with the addition of No. 15-ranked Michigan Tech.
With such a large number of returning players, don’t look for major shakeups in team leadership. The Captain, Ferrantino, and the Alternates, Cox, Travis Walsh, and Justin Hoomaian, are the same on-ice leadership as last year. Here is what Cox had to say about taking on more of a leadership role, as well as the Spartans third-place ranking in the Big Ten Coaches poll.
Ferrantino has the “ability and courage to hold his team mates accountable,” says Anastos, and while he admits that team depth is not where he wanted or expected it to be, he sees his newcomers – Mason Appleton, Joel Arseneault, Cody Milan, Zach Osburn, and Brennan Sanford – as strong additions who will fill that depth quickly (another newcomer, Jerad Rosburg, is already out for the season after knee surgery). Anastos noted that his incoming class of freshman came more physically in-shape and prepared to play than any class he has seen in his five years as head coach. To assist the newcomers in building their confidence and acclimatizing them to the program, an upper-class player is assigned to mentor each of the newbies through a program called “Spartan Soldiers.”
All-in-all the Spartans and their coach are very optimistic about the upcoming season. Strength in their returning players and their confidence in continuing on their successes late last season have them primed and ready to go. Their first game this season will be an exhibition game against Western Ontario at 4:05 on Sunday, October 4.