Thursday, June 16, 2016

Remembering Ron Mason 1940-2016

The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup on Sunday. The day after, it didn’t really matter to me all that much.

Three days after the death of Gordie Howe, hockey lost another legend in retired Michigan State University head coach Ron Mason, who passed away at age 76 early in the morning on June 13. Unlike Mr. Hockey, whom I met only once at an NHL All-Star Game in New York City, I knew Ron Mason personally, and a lot longer.

I never called him Ron. It was always "Coach".

Back in the fall of 1994, three years after graduating from Boston College and spending time at BC, Alaska Fairbanks, and with the NHL and the New Jersey Devils, I packed my bags again and drove 10 hours west with my father to take a position as the sports information intern for hockey at Michigan State. I stayed there for two seasons, 82 games, and 53 victories. While MSU didn't win any titles (came close a couple of times) or raise any banners to the rafters of Munn Ice Arena in my largely non-descript tenure, in a lot of ways those were some of the best years of my life.

If you’ve ever seen the 2014 Brad Pitt film "Fury" about a World War II Sherman tank crew in Nazi Germany, you know that the credo that was passed along among his five-man gang about their insular existence, that they were each living the "best job I ever had". That's how I feel about my time at State—and a lot of that had to do with Spartan Hockey and Ron Mason.

A year-and-a half before I arrived in Michigan, Coach had broken retired Boston College head coach Len Ceglarksi’s record for career NCAA victories. Even the vending machines on the concourse at Munn paid him homage, electronic letters scrolling around price listings with the words “Welcome to Munn Arena—Home of the Winningest Coach in North American College Hockey.”

“Roman, could we get that fixed?” he asked me early on. “It makes it sound like there’s some guy in France I have to beat.”

I'd actually seen Coach on the Spartan bench before I ever worked at State. The first time was in 1988, when MSU edged Harvard, 6-5, at Bright Hockey Center in Cambridge, Mass. in the NCAA Tournament. A year-and-a-half-later, it was at BC as State rebounded to win, 5-3, at Conte Forum, eight months after the Spartans won a best-of-three NCAA quarterfinal series at Munn over the Eagles. I didn't actually meet him until five years later, though, when I walked into Munn and shook hands with him outside his office.

"You're not a member of the media, Roman, you're one of us," he told me matter-of-factly.

That was my life the next 20 months, dealing and traveling with MSU Hockey, overseeing the press box at home and acting as a liaison on the road. Besides taking care of publicity, I’d also take a spin on the ice at Munn every chance I got. Not as impressive as it sounds, since I didn’t start skating seriously until I was 15, but I can ice the puck with the best of them.

I got hurt playing in the Sunday night league at Munn one weekend when some opposing behemoth dumped me on the ice and I ruptured my left trapezius muscle, which blew up like a balloon. I convalesced the next day in the training room, with Spartan players snickering that I had suffered a writing injury, then being minutely impressed when I said I actually gotten hurt playing hockey. I remember telling myself don’t fall asleep, even though I was tired from waking up in pain several times the night before, because I wanted to be ready when Coach invariably came in.

Of course, I nodded off—and of course, he walked in while I was out cold.

“Roman, you dying or what?!” came a booming voice that could only belong to him.

Hey, Coach. Nope, still alive, just nursing this pesky trapezius.  

At the Spartan Hockey Awards Banquet following the 1994-1995 season, Coach told the crowd, to some laughs, that I was a frustrated hockey player. I'm still a frustrated player, Coach, I'm just older now than I was back then. (My next goal in Saturday night pick-up against other, almost 50-year-old men and much, much faster kids home from college will be dedicated to him—hopefully I don't tear up my good knee doing it.) He also said that night that I wrote some nice things about the team, which coming from him meant quite a bit.

That’s because Coach was Spartan Hockey, whether it was at Munn, on campus, or anywhere else in town. His radio show on Wednesday nights, first at Sneekers and then at Reno's East, was a mainstay, even when I left East Lansing and was living elsewhere in Michigan. He'd talk to anybody and everybody, always passing on his vast knowledge of the game.

He had presence, he had personality, and he also had compassion. My first trip to Lake Superior State, I got sick, but still made the game. It was an important Central Collegiate Hockey Association contest, yet the first thing Coach asked me when I got to the rink was how I was feeling. Two league points on the line, and he was asking how the PR guy was. I appreciated that, although we settled for a tie after leading by two goals and got no movies on the five-and-a half hour ride home from the Soo, in the days before tablets and smart phones. At least we got sandwiches.

Coach could also be tough on you personally at times, whether you were a player or not. My second year, assists sometimes got screwed up on the scoresheet. (Anson Carter, you probably should have had several more helpers your senior year—hope that didn't impact your NHL chances). In retrospect, I’d rightfully bear the brunt when errors like that occurred, and Coach would let me know in no uncertain terms.

You didn't want to have Coach scowling at you. Besides making you uncomfortable, you felt like you had let him down. He had a way of how he wanted things done, and as I’ve learned over the years, working with other highly-successful coaches, it’s better to just do things their way because they’ve got it down pat. Heck, he once even rearranged my tie for me (with the players watching) at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit because he didn’t like way I fashioned the knot.

At MSU, doing things Coach’s way included making sure to call a long-distance hotline and get out-of-town scores following our own game, especially league contests. (There was no real Internet back then to check results.) He’d just be sitting there near the locker room, often talking to a reporter, then would look directly at me and simply say “Scores?” Better not tell him you couldn’t get through.

He also didn't shy away from his convictions. If Coach didn't know something, which wasn't often, he'd tell you so. If he did something and you were like "Really?" he'd tell you flat out, "You're damn right I did."

Besides the radio show, public appearances and Spartan games, he was also a showman in his own right. My second year, we opened in California at the Great Western Freeze-Out, and Coach wielded the microphone up front on the tour bus near Los Angeles. At one point he gestured to the side of the road and said knowingly, “There’s the McDonald’s where Kato Kaelin met with O.J. Simpson.”

As he continued, I said to one of my friends on the team, “Boy, Coach sure knows a lot about the O.J case.” To which my friend replied, “Nah, the bus driver’s feeding him information.” Good show, Coach.

He knew Xs and Os, obviously, and was the first coach to employ five forwards on the same power play. He also knew how to put players together to have success—our second line of Taylor Clarke, Steve Ferranti and Tony Tuzzolino was just tremendous for us my second season, in terms of puck pressure and putting the puck away—but he also knew how hockey is predicated on effort and emotion.

“They’re going to come at you hard this period, trying to get back in it,” I heard him say in the locker room in Fairbanks between periods as State went for a three-game sweep. “Don’t let ‘em.”

He simply loved the game. Back in 1995, our two hockey team statisticians, Amy Bauer and Rebecca McCurdy, got an MSU women's club team started up, which is still in existence today and has also won a national club championship. At their very first game at Munn, Coach was not only watching, he was actually working the door on the Spartan bench as players changed up.

After two seasons at MSU, I moved on to the expansion Grand Rapids Griffins of the old International Hockey League in late 1996. Coach told me after a Spartan game that fall what a beautiful building the new Van Andel Arena was, and he visited again that March when State played Minnesota in the NCAA West Regional. I'd see him intermittently after that, after I moved back home to New Jersey in 2000, including at the 2006 NCAA East Regional in Albany when State outlasted New Hampshire but fell to Maine with the Frozen Four on the line. A year later, the Spartans went all the way in St. Louis, topping Maine in a Frozen Four semifinal before claiming the national title with a win over BC (anybody sensing a pattern here?).

I saw Coach at Munn in 2002 when I visited from Jersey, where I was working in athletics at Montclair State University, one of the 15 other MSUs in America. I told him I was now at another MSU, specifically Montclair, and he said matter-of-factly, “Yeah, I know where it is.” Of course he did.

The last time I saw him in East Lansing was in late summer 2007 in his office at Jenison Field House, where he was winding down his tenure as State’s athletic director after five years. I showed up unannounced, just hoping to see him for a minute to say hello. He gave me ten, despite his busy schedule.

The final time I actually saw Coach was in late 2008 at the Icebreaker at Boston University. He was already on the Spartan bus sitting behind Agganis Arena after BU's 2-1 win (I still think MSU goalie Jeff Lerg got bumped out of position on one of those BU goals). I didn't speak to him, I just waved. He waved back, with a look on his face that almost said "Is that you?" (I have a habit of turning up like a proverbial bad hockey penny—ask former BC coach Steve Cedorchuk how he stepped off a plane in Anchorage, Alaska in August 1991 only to see me, on my own way up to Fairbanks to work at UAF. Truly a "WTF" moment.)

I last spoke to Coach in 2013 when he actually called me, just a regular guy from Jersey and now a reporter, on my cell phone. We talked about the end of the CCHA, for a potential article I was writing, but he also beamed about his younger grandson, Travis, who had just started out at State that year as a freshman defenseman. I remember when Travis used to run around Sneekers with his older brother, Tyler, during Coach's radio shows, and a year after that phone call I saw Travis playing live as a junior for the Spartans in a pair of games here at Princeton. I was quite impressed with his hockey sense, how he moved the puck, and how he didn't panic under pressure—must have had a good teacher, and good bloodlines.

After MSU lost to Colorado College in the 2002 NCAA West Regional in Ann Arbor (ugh) in his final game behind the Spartan bench, I read that Coach said he was going to go home and watch an NHL contest. According to reports, the last thing he did the night before he passed was watch Pittsburgh defeat San Jose in Game 6 to win the Stanley Cup.

I won't talk about all of his many, many accomplishments—the wins, the titles, the records, the trophies, the halls of fame. Others have already done that, comprehensively and honorably. Things have also changed since my day-to-day time at MSU 20-plus years ago. I haven't traveled to Michigan in almost a decade now, the longest time I've been away since I first went there, and I sometimes forget there's no more CCHA and that State is now a member of the Big Ten for hockey as well.

Although it’s not a hop, skip and a jump by car from New Jersey to East Lansing (about 10 hours one-way), I still feel guilty I wasn’t in attendance for his wake at Munn. I feel like I should have been there to honor him—but if you believe in such things, then I feel his spirit will always permeate Munn, and will still be there the next time I make it out to State.

Hockey itself has gone dark for another season, and unfortunately so has another legendary name of the game. My condolences to his wife, Marion (whom I have always called "Mrs. Mason"), his daughters, Cindy and Tracey, his grandsons, and all his countless friends and former players, many of whom I've also been privileged to know over the years.

If I can take any solace from his passing, it's that I know Coach is up there now with our mutual friend, Jerry Marshall, another good man who was the longtime Munn public address announcer for Spartan Hockey. Jerry passed away in early 2008, after State won its last NCAA hockey championship, and has probably been waiting for Coach to come along, so he’s in good hands.

Rest in peace, Coach—and thanks. Go State.

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