New Griffins head coach Danton Cole is excited about the opportunity to guide the team that he once captained as a player.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Danton Cole would be the first to admit that he wasn’t too sure about the idea of coaching when injuries prematurely ended his playing career and forced him behind the bench three years ago.
“To be honest, it wasn’t anything I really thought about — when you’re playing, you think you’ll play forever,” he says, reflecting on the opportunity that presented itself early into the 1999-2000 season when he was still team captain of the Griffins.
In fact, Cole thought he had no desire to stay in the game once he retired as a player.
“For a long time, I didn’t think I’d want to coach,” he says. “You throw so much of yourself into the sport when you’re playing — all the time in the weight room and training — I just thought I would want to get away from the game.” Being an assistant coach — first, under Guy Charron, and later, under Bruce Cassidy — changed his mind.
“The more responsibility I was given, the more I enjoyed it,” says Cole, who admits that he was even more surprised when he discovered that he was, in his words, “half-decent at it.” Now he’s being given the chance to lead the Griffins organization as it heads into a new era, thanks to a new five-year affiliation deal with the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings. And he couldn’t be happier.
“I love watching hockey — I love being a part of the game,” he says, admitting that the thrill of competition has not lessened since he traded in his jersey for a suit and tie. “This is a great way to make a living.” Cole, 35, returns to Grand Rapids after guiding the Muskegon Fury to the United Hockey League’s 2002 Colonial Cup championship in his first season as a head coach.
“It was a tremendous experience,” he says. “I was in charge of all hockey operations — from negotiating contracts to finding housing for the players — in addition to all the day-to-day decisions that a coach has to make.” Making the switch from player to assistant coach may have required more of an adjustment, but Cole found that assuming the head reins has its own challenges.
“The hardest part was earning the respect of the players, to prove to them that I knew what I was doing,” he says.
If he was a little nervous before the first exhibition game — and he was — the butterflies eventually disappeared.
“I found that when I tried certain things, they worked,” Cole says.
“That’s a good feeling because you don’t get the same feedback that players do when they score a goal or get an assist.
“As a coach, success is measured in the subtle things you do that might help the team win. Maybe it’s the way you matched lines or something else that nobody would notice except one or two other people.
“Like a player, a coach has to prove himself game in and game out. Every day, I felt like I had to prove that I was better than the coach on the other side of the rink, and I wanted to be better than I was the night before.” Cole’s comfort level was boosted by the fact that he wasn’t inexperienced when it came to making his point in a locker room, something that he was comfortable doing as a player.
“Being a leader, you kind of develop the mentality of being a head coach,” he says. “Personality-wise, becoming a head coach wasn’t a huge leap for me. I felt like I had a pretty good handle on things — which is not to say that I didn’t learn a few things along the way.” If he had to funnel his energies elsewhere — he couldn’t hop over the boards onto the ice anymore — he lost little of the intensity that he showed as a player.
“My intensity is something that works for me,” Cole says. “It’s what drives me, it’s part of my personality. Yeah, I’m an intense guy, but I think that’s the way the game should be played.” Cole believes that a team will eventually take on the personality of its coach and leaders. Even so, there were times last season when he was unsure about the right approach, the right words to motivate his team.
Help was usually a phone call away. He knew he could get advice from Cassidy or Ron Mason, his mentor at Michigan State who was coaching his final season behind the bench.
“Butch and I talked an awful lot,” Cole says. “Mason coached for 35 years and won 900-some games in college, so he knows what he’s doing. To have a guy like that to sometimes bounce ideas off is a good thing.” If there’s one aspect of coaching that Cole finds most invigorating, it’s player psychology. Naturally, it doesn’t hurt that it wasn’t too long ago that he was still putting on the skates himself.
“One way or another, you learn to get your message across,” Cole says.
“You need to figure out what makes a guy tick. Sometimes it takes a pat on the back, but a kick in the rear end is not that far behind.
“You try to push the right buttons. Sometimes guys need to laugh and sometimes they need to be scolded. When you hit the right tone, you know it.” Cole found the right tone more often than not last season on the way to his third cup win. In some ways, he found last year’s championship more satisfying than either his NCAA title at Michigan State or playing on the New Jersey Devils' 1995 Stanley Cup-winning team.
“Maybe as a coach you can experience it more because you can stand back and watch,” he says. “Everything doesn’t happen so quick and you’re able to soak it all in a little more.” Having won two previous championships, he knew it was important to savor every moment. “Being through it before, I realized how difficult it is to win a championship,” he says.
Which is why he’s excited about the opportunity to lead the Griffins to their first championship. He said as much in a letter that he addressed to every player before the opening of training camp. “I told them that we want to be Calder Cup champs,” Cole says. “We’ve got to figure out a way.” As the saying goes, where there’s a will, there’s a way. With Cole leading the way, the Griffins are almost certain to be in the hunt.