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74 Years of Icy Relations: MSU-Michigan Hockey History

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With the season finale looming this weekend, lets have a look at the history of MSU-UM hockey

The 1951 MSU Hockey Team
The 1951 MSU Hockey Team
On the Banks of the Red Cedar

This weekend will mark the 303rd and 304th time the Michigan State Spartans and Michigan Wolverines will play each other in ice hockey. The first game between the two stretches back to January 1, 1922 when Michigan State played it's first hockey game ever, losing to the Wolverines 5-1.  That Spartans' team had no coach and played their home games on the frozen Red Cedar. They also weren't actually Spartans, they were M.A.C Aggies. 1922 was in fact the first year that both schools iced a varsity squad, with Michigan playing as an organized club beginning in 1920 and elevating to varsity status two years later.

This is a rivalry that has seen legendary coaches in Ron Mason, Amo Bessone, Vic Heyliger and Red Berenson. Each team has had two Hobey Baker winners play in the series, Michigan State with Kip (1990) and Ryan Miller (2001), while the Wolverines' Brendan Morrison (1997) and Kevin Porter (2008) took home the trophy.  Countless All-Americans, future NHLers and Olympic heroes have played in one of the greatest rivalries in all of college hockey. The rivalry has lost some of it's luster since the recent peak of the late 1990's and early 2000's. The Spartans' hockey team has struggled to compete with Michigan, in recruiting and on-ice results, since the tail end of the Rick Comley era and the beginning of this, the Tom Anastos era.

However, while the Spartans sport a middle of the road 16-14-2 record, this weekend presents a chance for the rivalry to reach a fervor it hasn't seen since 2006-08. The Spartans lead the Wolverines by one point in the B1G standings and have an opportunity in a home and home series to win the league title, while also drawing closer in the all-time series with Michigan. It would be the Spartans' first regular season league title since 2001, when the Spartans won the league by 10 points over Miami and Michigan.

There has been increased traffic over the last two weeks here at TOC for hockey stories and the sweep of Wisconsin last weekend has seemed to change the attitude around Michigan State hockey online. Hopefully this leads to an energized Munn Ice Arena on Friday night, even with the students on spring break. With an important series against an arch-rival happening this weekend I wanted to take some time to teach new MSU hockey fans (and maybe expand the knowledge of senior fans) on the history of Michigan State vs. Michigan.

Coaches' Records Against Michigan

Name Years as Coach Record Winning %
John Kobs 1925-1930 2-10 .167
Harold Paulsen 1950-1951 0-4 .194
Amo Bessone 1951-1979 50-67-2 .420
Ron Mason 1979-2002 56-38-8 .549
Rick Comley 2002-2011 16-19-8 .372
Tom Anastos 2011-present 5-12-1 .278

As that table makes it pretty clear that Ron Mason had the most success against the Wolverines. The all-time series currently stands with a Michigan State record of 129-154-19, meaning that Mason was coach in 43% of  Michigan State victories in the series. John Kobs, best known for his baseball coaching prowess, was the first Spartans coach to defeat the Wolverines. Kobs was the bench boss on February 5, 1927 when the Spartans defeated Michigan 5-2. Kobs was the coach at Michigan State until 1930 when the program was suspended from play for twenty years. The program was forced out of play by lack of administration interest in the sport, the Great Depression, World War II and inconsistent Michigan weather, making it hard to produce a schedule when there wasn't consistent freezing of ponds or rivers.

Michigan State hockey returned to varsity play under Harold Paulsen in 1950 and he was the man who oversaw the building of Demonstration Hall, Spartan hockey's first indoor home. Paulsen coached for just two seasons and was never able to defeat the Wolverines before resigning with pressure from current athletic director Ralph Young. Amo Bessone was named the Spartans coach in 1951 and is the longest tenured coach in program history, leading the charge for 28 seasons. Bessone's first season was also the first season the Spartans belonged to a conference, forming the Midwest Collegiate Hockey League with Michigan, Colorado College, Denver, Michigan Tech, Minnesota and North Dakota. The league would later go through a name change to it's current name, the Western Collegiate Hockey League (WCHA).

Bessone came into his job during the best dynasty run in the history of college hockey, the Vic Heyliger era at the University of Michigan. Heyliger went 141-41-11 in his time at Michigan winning six national championships in ten years and being a leader in shifting college hockey dominance from the east to the west. Due to this dominance it took Bessone 27 games against Michigan to notch his first victory on January 8, 1958. The 1957-58 season was also was the first winning season in program history (12-11). The Spartans won three out of four against the Wolverines, their first season under Al Renfrew.  The 1960's saw Bessone be streaky against Michigan, winning four in a row here, losing seven in a row there. 1966 saw the Michigan State Spartans go 4-1 against Michigan and capture their first national championship in program history.

The 1970s saw Bessone win more than he lost against Michigan, there was a run of six straight winning seasons and the current home of Michigan State hockey, Munn Ice Arena, opened it's doors on October 25,1974.

Ron Mason, New League, Red Berenson and "The Cold War"

Ron Mason took over for the Michigan State hockey program on April 1, 1979. Mason had started the hockey program at Lake Superior State University (coaching future Spartans head man Rick Comley) and been involved in the formation of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) while coaching Bowling Green State University. Mason went 2-7 in his first nine games against the Wolverines but dominated the 1980's against the team from Ann Arbor, going 34-14-1. This period coincided with possibly the most talented teams in MSU history from 1984-1986, with the Spartans winning the national crown in 1986.

Under Ron Mason's tenure the Spartans and Wolverines made a league move together once again, joining the CCHA in 1981 with Notre Dame and Michigan Tech. At this time Michigan was led by John Giordano, the only head coach in program history with a losing record (68-75-6). In 1984 Michigan turned to a former star player of theirs, Red Berenson, who led a reclamation project of the program. Berenson, who is the current coach of the Wolverines, didn't get his team into the NCAA tournament until 1990-91, but after that did not miss a tournament until 2012-13. A 23 year run that included eleven trips to the Frozen Four, two Hobey Baker winners and two national championshiips. Red vs. Ron was the rivalry of my childhood and these two figureheads grew college hockey in Michigan and took the rivalry to his place next to Boston University and Boston College as the best rivalry in college hockey.

There were bench clearing brawls:

And one of the best combined runs between the two schools in 2000-2001 with both making the Frozen Four leading to both being ranked in the top five come October 7, 2001 at Spartan Stadium:

The Spartans and Wolverines started the outdoor hockey craze in America with what was, at the time, the largest attended hockey game in history.

Rick Comley, Corey Tropp, Tom Anastos and the down years

First things first, Rick Comley is a legend. Two national championships, built the program from the ground up at Northern Michigan and in the top 5 for all time collegiate wins. He was an interesting hire when Ron Mason stepped into the Athletic Director's office but Mason had earned being able to pick his pupil to succeed him. Comley was not a disaster his entire tenure, I mean he was the head coach of the last national championship team in this rivalry in 2007.

However, it never seemed Comley quite felt comfortable at MSU. He had made his teams at Northern successful by recruiting older players from the NAHL and Canadian juniors and was not used to getting into recruiting wars with the big boys. The problem for Michigan State was that they had the resources and the budget to not run away from a kid just because Michigan offered, yet recruiting changed under Comley. Pipelines from the metro Detroit AAA programs dried up and the on-ice product suffered. Michigan State basically hung even with Michigan in head-to-head play up until 2008 when they began a streak of going 3-10 in their next 13 match-ups. Gone were the days of a strong first line and excellent NHL drafted defenseman under Mason to combat the high-flying Michigan offense. in the Mason-Berenson days it was a clash of styles but they were equally talented. Comley was more offensive minded than Mason but never had the horses to compete with what Berenson could bring in. In 2009 the ugliest incident in this rivalry occurred and for many, it was the beginning of the end of the Comley era.

Corey Tropp and Andrew Conboy viciously attacked Steve Kampfer. Kampfer returned from being nearly paralyzed by a Michigan football player and now is enjoying a decent pro career. That attack was ugly and showed a lack of discipline under Comley as well as warts in recruiting. Andrew Conboy had no business playing college hockey, let alone at Michigan State. His talent was minimal in a league that allows no fighting and he has even managed to get himself ran out of the tough ECHL. Corey Tropp was suspended the rest of the season but returned the next fall. I can't say that I agreed with his return but unlike other times (like Glenn Winston a year or two later in football) his return went well with no incident and he is now an NHL regular.

Tom Anastos was hired in 2011 and has been trying to catch up with Michigan and the B1G since his first season. He somehow managed to get Torey Krug and the Spartans to the NCAA tournament his first season but has had a dismal record against the Wolverines. He has brought back defensive hockey and reopened some pipelines in metro Detroit but is still recruiting on a different tier than the Wolverines. Make no mistake this team is not back, they are behind Michigan in talent yet somehow have managed in league play to get a one point lead. It is amazing, great coaching to a style that fits and hopefully the beginning of a return to the rivalry. Michigan State has been the reason this rivalry has slipped and it is their responsibility to bring it back.Who knows where the rivalry will go with Red Berenson expected to retire after next season and pressure mounting in Ann Arbor. Playing for a league title is one way to bring the rivalry back and I for one hope this is just the beginning of a new age in this series.

Let the hate flow in games 303 and 304.