Danton Cole, who spent several seasons behind the Griffins’ bench after finishing his playing career with the team, is excited about the opportunity to rebuild the hockey program at Michigan State University.
Story by Mark Newman
Danton Cole played for 11 seasons professionally, but he’s now been coaching nearly twice that long. And so it is a point of pride that he can say that he has coached 100 players who have gone on to play in the National Hockey League. He has also amassed nearly 500 victories while building a resume that includes international, professional and collegiate experience.
For Cole, it is equally exciting and satisfying that he managed to find a home at his alma mater, Michigan State University, where he became only the seventh head coach in program history on April 11, 2017.
Now in his third season behind the Spartans’ bench, Cole looks back fondly on his time in the AHL, both as a rookie pro with the Moncton Hawks in 1989-90 and much later as the head coach of the Griffins (2002-05), with whom he compiled a 116-72-17-3 record.
“I love being here,” Cole said recently from his office in Munn Ice Arena. “I’ve told people that this is where I always wanted to end up. I want to get this program back to where it once was, to the point where we’re in the national championship picture every year. It’s a quest.”
As a player under longtime MSU coach Ron Mason, Cole helped the Spartans celebrate an NCAA national championship (1986), make three NCAA Frozen Four appearances (1986, 1987, 1989), claim two CCHA regular season titles (1986, 1989), and capture two CCHA Tournament championships (1987, 1989).
Cole knows turning around the Spartan program won’t happen overnight, especially when college hockey players – unlike their basketball and football counterparts – are recruited several years before they come on campus.
Players recruited during their sophomore year in high school often opt to play one or two years of junior hockey before starting their collegiate careers, which means recruiting good players requires considerable foresight.
“It’s a long process, (but) I think we’re turning the corner,” he said. “The buzz around the arena is a lot different than it was three years ago. A lot of really good players are interested in us now.”
Cole understands what it takes to win.
Two seasons before joining the Griffins in the middle of the organization’s inaugural season, Cole managed to hoist the Stanley Cup as a member of the 1995 New Jersey Devils, a feat that he could especially appreciate as he was 30 years old at the time.
Only two years removed from a 20-goal season with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Cole nonetheless was a depth player at that point in his career. In fact, after winning the Cup, he spent most of the next year in the International Hockey League, splitting his season between the Utah Grizzlies and Indianapolis Ice, along with a 10-game stint with the New York Islanders and two games with the Chicago Blackhawks.
A journeyman in the NHL, Cole eventually decided to pack his bags and take his wife Deb and daughters to North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, where he started the 1996-97 season as a member of the Krefeld Penguins.
“I was getting toward the end of my career, so Deb and I started looking at our options,” Cole recalled. “All of my NHL offers were two-way deals, which meant as an older guy, I was probably going to end up in the minors. We figured it was a good time to try Europe.”
Cole played 28 games for Krefeld, all the while watching from afar what was happening back in Michigan on the west side of the state.
“We saw they were building an arena and we knew how nice the town was, so the idea of playing in Grand Rapids never left our minds,” he said. “When we went to Germany, everything was fine, but it didn’t really fit our family lifestyle with two young girls.
“We started talking with the Griffins and there was an opportunity to sign with the team in mid-January. We were very excited about coming back. We were totally blown away by the new arena, with every game being a sellout and getting a great reception from the fans every night. It was just a fun place to be.”
What made that season even more special, Cole contends, was the makeup of that inaugural team – from defenseman Travis Richards, the only Griffin to have his number hanging from the rafters of Van Andel Arena, to high-scoring Michel Picard, Jeff Nelson, and the late Pavol Demitra as well as Kevyn Adams, who would later win a Stanley Cup with the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes.
“A lot of them are still my best friends in hockey,” said Cole, adding the names of Todd Nelson and Bruce Ramsay, who would later team together as coaches to capture the 2017 Calder Cup in Grand Rapids. “Plus we had guys like Don McSween and Matt Ruchty who were a big part of that team and who still live in town.”
Cole said everyone could sense what the Griffins and Van Andel Arena meant to Grand Rapids.
“If you go back and look at the time horizon of when the arena was built to now, the growth downtown has been tremendous. It blossomed from one street to the next,” he said. “And when you look at the ownership of the team and all they’ve done in the community, it’s just unbelievable.
“To be a small part of the beginning of all that excitement is pretty cool.”
Cole recognized that his playing days were coming to an end. Despite his prowess as a penalty killer, various injuries – a broken leg, a sports hernia, nerve damage in his neck – were conspiring to convince him that he needed to decide what was next.
“I think God was letting me know that it was time to stop playing,” he said, assaying all his ailments. “Even so, the decision was still hard. You identify your whole life as a hockey player and to give that up wasn’t easy.”
During Cole’s last full season as a player in 1998-99, Griffins head coach Guy Charron and assistant coach Curtis Hunt helped point him in the right direction.
“They did a great job of not only understanding what I was going through but also being demanding enough to show me what coaching is all about,” he said. “I don’t think guys who think they’re just going to jump into coaching realize how many hours go into the job. For me, that was the biggest shock.
“As a player, you’re accustomed to getting to the rink, practicing and maybe working out before going to lunch with the boys at 12:30 or 1, and then you go home to grab a nap. For players, it’s a pretty easy day.
“As a coach, it’s like Mike Babcock would say, you’re either in by 6 or you stay until 6. There are long days. I have to give Guy and Curtis credit because they helped me to see that I really loved coaching and it’s a challenge that I love.”
Cole, who excelled in the classroom at MSU and graduated with a degree in finance, had been thinking of becoming a stockbroker, opening an office in Grand Rapids for a friend who already had a business in Chicago.
“Coaching wasn’t a career path that I thought I was going to take,” he said. “But my career took a severe right turn and more than 20 years later, I’m still at it. It’s taken me and my family in a lot of different directions that we might not have expected, but I wouldn’t trade anything that happened along the way for anything else.”
An assistant coach for Grand Rapids for two seasons (1999-2001) who then guided the Muskegon Fury to the 2002 UHL championship before being named head coach of the Griffins that summer, he joined the UHL’s Motor City Mechanics after the Griffins decided to change coaches midway through the 2004-05 AHL campaign. Following a second season in the lower rungs of professional hockey, he decided he wanted to change tack.
Although he sought another head coaching role, Cole discovered that most schools looked at him as a “pro guy, not a college guy,” so he accepted an assistant coaching position with Bowling Green State University.
That job led him to the University of Alabama-Huntsville, where he coached the Chargers for three seasons (2007-10), keeping the team competitive even as its league, College Hockey America, was folding.
“It was a great place because of the people there,” he said. “Everybody loved hockey, but we were in a tough spot because the league was going away and we were an outlier geographically, which made it harder to recruit and raise money. We were a D-II school in a D-I sport, but everything I learned would later help me in terms of how to build a team and how to fundraise and get the community on board.”
Cole eventually left the school for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, where he would alternate coaching the U-17 and U-18 teams, helping to mold the young men into not only good hockey players but also high-quality individuals off the ice.
“I think coaching there is like coaching three years anywhere else,” he said. “It’s an environment where you have real high-end hockey players who sometimes look like men on the ice but when they come off the ice, they’re still 16 or 17 or 18-year-olds and they’re like every other teenager in the world.
“If I had a son who had a chance to get into the program, I’d knock down any wall to get him there, even if he never played a day of hockey afterward. It’s such a positive environment. We have two years to help turn them into men and guys are willing to train and invest in themselves in terms of getting better.”
The USA Hockey program has produced more than its share of talent. During his tenure, Cole saw Jack Eichel (Buffalo), Auston Matthews (Toronto) and Dylan Larkin (Detroit), among others.
What makes the NTDP unique is that the program is designed to test the mettle of the teenagers by having them face more advanced competition. A team of teenagers competing against a college team every week is a tall order.
“Intentionally, we put these young men at a deficit, so it’s a challenge,” Cole said. “These are guys who have always had success and now they’re coming into a situation that’s really going to test them. From a teaching and motivational standpoint, it’s really good for coaching. I think every coach should coach a team that is not favored in any game that you play.”
Cole said he certainly learned the importance of patience during his time with the U.S. National Team. No matter how talented young players might be, they are still bound to make their share of mistakes. It was good training for his future work at MSU.
Looking back on his 20-plus years in coaching, he believes he has maintained a fundamental philosophy while evolving in various approaches and methods to achieve his teaching aims.
“There’s a certain core of beliefs that you always have, but what changes is how you teach and the methods you use to get your message across in terms of what’s the most effective way,” he said.
“The one thing you discover is there are certain ways that guys learn, and in the end that’s why we are here: to teach. The principles – hard work, the commitment, the investment it takes to be a good hockey player, the importance of being a great teammate – have to always be there even when your systems may change.
“If you don’t make mistakes, you don’t move forward and I’ve made plenty,” he said. “I’m a recovering, mistake-ridden coach but you’re always trying to get better and I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s been a good journey.”
Cole has been coaching long enough that he was able to coach the sons of former Griffins teammates Derek King (D.J.) and John Gruden (Jonathan) in the U.S. National program. He has learned that sons with dads who played the sport professionally have a certain advantage over their contemporaries.
“They usually know how it all works because most of them have spent a lot of time on the ice, having grown up as rink rats,” Cole said. “It’s kinda funny. Sometimes they do the same things their dads did. ‘Oh, I see where that comes from.’ It’s fun to coach them, but it makes you feel a little bit old.”
He currently coaches defensemen Cole and Christian Krygier, the identical twin sons of Griffins assistant coach Todd Krygier. A veteran of nine NHL seasons, Krygier was finishing his long playing career with the Orlando Solar Bears at the same time that Cole was ending his with the Griffins.
“Cole and Christian have been great,” (Danton) Cole said. “You can tell that their dad has been their coach for a big chunk of their lives. They were true freshmen coming in and they did a great job getting acclimated to the program, both on and off the ice in the classroom. They’re thriving and they just keep getting better, plus they’ve got a great intensity about them. They’re a big part of our team.”
Cole says he’s a better coach today than when he started with the Griffins.
“I think I’ve gotten better at teaching and how to go about things in terms of how to build a team and build a culture,” he said. “Whether it’s in the AHL, the national program or college, as a coach you’re here to help young men get what they want and that’s an awful lot of fun.”
He admits to still keeping tabs on the fortunes of the Griffins, especially when some of his former players come through Grand Rapids. Taro Hirose, who was the Spartans’ leading scorer during Cole’s first two seasons at MSU, currently plays with the Griffins.
“I found the AHL to be a great teaching atmosphere,” he said. “Guys don’t want to be in the AHL. They want to be in the NHL. So you have a good, captive audience that is willing to learn. If they think you know what you are doing and you do, and you’re consistent with your message, you can help them get better.”
Winning is always the goal, Cole thinks the true aim of a good coach is helping players get better.
“As a coach, you have to be ruthlessly introspective and as you get older, it’s a little easier to do,” he said. “You also have to be a lifelong learner. I read a ton of books and any time I can watch another coach talk, I’ll spend the time. Podcasts are great, too. At the end of the day, you’re just trying to become a better person. I am what I am, (but) hopefully working into a better version of who I am.
“In the beginning, you worry about wins and you want to keep coaching, so you gotta win. That’s always in your mind. When you get older, you want to be a coach of significance. So when one of your players looks back 10 or 15 years later, they can say that was a good time in their life and they learned a lot about hockey but they learned a lot of other things as well.”
Whether they become doctors, lawyers or teachers, or even if they eventually do play in the NHL, Cole hopes his former players will be able to look back to their hockey experience as a positive.
“Everyone wants to keep playing hockey and hopefully your room is filled with guys who are working towards that goal,” he said. “You set a course for them and show them the things that they need to improve. If they want to play in the NHL, there are certain things they have to do.
“At the end of the day, you’re watching guys grow up. I don’t know if there’s an NHL team that doesn’t have at least one or two guys that I coached at some level, and that’s pretty neat.”