“Will beats skill. It always does.”
That’s what ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose said on Saturday night as the Michigan State Spartan hockey team was crowned NCAA champions after a 3-1 defeat of the Boston College Eagles.
Coaching the Spartans to victory was former NMU hockey coach Rick Comley, who started the Wildcat men’s hockey program and was the only leader the team knew for 23 years.
Saturday was a night five years in the making for Comley, but one that was familiar to the man that led the NMU icers to a title in 1991.
Saturday’s victory served as overdue justification for Comley, who has been under fire as of late. Followers of the green-and-white knew that they had a good team when Comley took over in 2002 and although the team had finished the previous season with a 27-9-5 record, the fans expected more. They expected a national championship.
When that championship wasn’t immediately claimed, Comley dealt with the repercussions, facing constant job-security rumors over the past few years.
Although he led the team to five straight winning seasons and last year’s Mason Cup, a trophy which he admits likely saved his job, nothing could have served Comley better than the 2007 national title.
The difference between his first four seasons at Michigan State and the current one is that Comley was finally coaching his own team this year, one that was fully assembled by his recruiting efforts.
There was no longer any riff-raff hanging around from the preceding Ron Mason era. And while one year may not have made a huge difference on paper, it is obvious that Michigan State began the year united behind a single coach’s ideology.
Comley has always recruited hard-working guys and, unlike many coaches, has never been easily impressed by a high NHL draft-pick. His teams are typically not made up of superstars. Instead, they consist of blue-collar players that are diligent and willing to accept specific roles in the context of a team concept.
This was the case in 1991, when Comley’s NMU squad won the national title.
It is also the case with 2007 Spartans, who currently reside at the top of the college hockey landscape.
Of the seven drafted MSU skaters, only two were picked prior to the fourth round in the NHL Entry Draft. The starting netminder was a 5-foot-6-inch undrafted sophomore from nearby Livonia named Jeff Lerg, and he had asthma. The starting center was Lerg’s undrafted cousin. The captain and both assistant captains were undrafted, as well.
No one honestly expected Michigan State to compete for a national championship.
Northern Michigan’s hockey team, on the other hand, was finally free this year of any association to Comley. The NMU squad was fully assembled by the recruiting efforts of Comley’s successor, Walt Kyle.
The Wildcats started the year with nine NHL draft picks, second in the CCHA to only Michigan’s 12, and an abundance of raw ability. The captain and each assistant captain had been selected in the NHL Entry Draft.
Hopes were sky high for the talent-laden group from Marquette.
And now here we are, six months later, and it is fully possible that the NMU hockey team, with all their talent, was watching ESPN last Saturday as the Michigan State Spartans were named national champions.
They may have watched as the untested Lerg stopped 29 of 30 shots in the championship game against the Eagles. If they kept up with the postseason, they would also know that, during the tournament, Lerg allowed just five goals on 113 shots for an amazing .955 save percentage.
They would also know that the Spartans ultimately emerged victorious from what Comley referred to as the “difficult battlefield” of college hockey.
MSU didn’t win the title as a group of individually talented players. They did it as a team.
NMU fans are left to wonder how an unlikely team from East Lansing could reach the pinnacle of college hockey, while their Wildcats sit home. The Spartans, however, can’t be surprised by the success that has surprised so many.
As Melrose so accurately noted, the will of the Michigan State Spartans defeated the skill of the Boston College Eagles on Saturday night.
In the half-decade it took to secure this dream, Comley methodically constructed a team that had the will of a champion.
He acquired his players-blue-collar men with a desire to succeed. He taught them how to all play within his system and he taught them how to come together as a cohesive unit.
Then, as he had done 16 years before at Northern Michigan, Comley won a national championship not with raw talent, but with a team.