By @MichaelCaples –
To most, he was the architect of some of the best teams college hockey has ever seen.
To some, he was much, much more.
Ron Mason passed away early Monday morning in Haslett, Mich. The acclaimed hockey coach – architect of Lake Superior State’s hockey program and leader of Michigan State’s for more than two decades – was 76 years old.
A member of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame, Mason left a gigantic footprint as a coach and a pioneer for college hockey. From building Lake Superior State’s hockey program, to leading Michigan State into national prominence, to overseeing the construction of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, Mason played a significant role in shaping hockey the way it is viewed today.
The second-winningest college hockey coach of all-time, Mason is survived by his wife, Marion; his daughters Cindy and Tracey; and his grandchildren Tyler Walsh (currently coaching with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program) and Travis Walsh (a MSU hockey alum).
“Obviously the loss of Coach Mason comes as a huge shock to all of us,” said current Michigan State head coach Tom Anastos, one of Mason’s former players, in a press conference this morning. “We see him bouncing around with energy and with his intensity, and to think that we’re not going to see that, it’s hard to get my arms around.”
An emotional Tom Newton, who played for Mason at Bowling Green and then spent 12 years with him as an assistant coach, illustrated how much Mason meant to many.
“I knew him since I was 13 years old,” Newton said. “Played for him, coached for him, had a lot of fun with him and went through a lot of things with him. I watched him bring a lot of young men along. I was one of those young men. I talked to a lot of guys, a lot of different ages, today. He had a lot of impact on a lot of people. I was just with Marion and Cindy, and it’s a hard day for them, and it’s going to be a hard day for the Spartan hockey family. One of his things was to be strong, keep going on, and we’ll certainly do that, and do it in his honor.”
Mason won two national titles as a head coach – a NAIA national championship with Lake Superior State in 1972 and a NCAA national championship with Michigan State in 1986. He concluded his coaching career with a remarkable 924-380-83 record between his time at LSSU, Bowling Green and Michigan State.
A significant portion of his time was spent in East Lansing, as Mason compiled a 635-270-69 record over 23 years. He coached 35 All-Americans and 50 former Spartans who went on to careers in the National Hockey League.
“For me, when I heard, my wife kind of saw some things and called and I said, ‘No way.’ And there was this shock part of it and then there’s this part that really hits you hard and memories of him just come flooding back in different areas,” said Damon Whitten, who played for Mason at MSU from 1997-2001 and now works as the head coach of LSSU. “Walking in for that first recruiting visit, looking a legend in the eye, so it’s a real tough day and sad day obviously for his family, but for all of college hockey.”
While he will be forever linked to the Spartans’ hockey program, Mason was the founder of the Lake Superior State team, as well – a storied Lakers program that went on to win another NAIA title and three NCAA national titles.
“The program wouldn’t be here without him; he founded the program up here and did everything,” Whitten said. “I talked to Jeff Jackson about it, as well, with what this program meant to Jeff and what he was doing… I can look at my office here, and I look at a 1972 NAIA Championship banner. That was Coach Mason’s first national championship here at Lake State. He went on to win more of them, but he started everything. He did it from the ground up. One of my assistant coaches, Rich Metro, his father Con was one of the first recruits and he talked about how Ron walked into his local job here, shook his hand and said, ‘Con, I want you to come play for me at Lake State’ and that got it done. The program obviously grew tremendously from there and he laid that foundation. Now there’s five national championships here in Sault Ste. Marie because of that, so a huge impact up here.”
Winning followed Mason around from rink to rink; Newton said his former boss was competitive in… well, everything.
“It’s a goofy story, but this is Ron Mason,” Newton said. “He expected to win. He just expected to win. We were in the office one day, I can’t even remember how long ago it was. He yells from his desk out to Chris Smith, his longtime assistant, and said ‘Chris, check the lotto numbers. I left my tickets on your desk.’ Of course, Chris checks the lotto tickets, and I happen to be walking into his office and Chris said, ‘Ron, you didn’t win.’ He was just irate. ‘How come I don’t get to win the lottery?!’ It was like, ‘Oh man, this guy, he expects to win EVERYTHING.’
“That kind of summed it up right there – he expected to win the lotto, even though his chances were better to get hit by lightning, he still wanted to win the lotto. That’s Ron. That’s Ron. There wasn’t a game he wasn’t going to win.”
While his quest for victories was intense, Mason made sure his players grew both on and off the ice. His coaching tree is vast, and that comes at no surprise.
“Obviously it all revolves around the locker room and on the ice and it’s all intertwined, but just the discipline he set in us,” Whitten said. “There were things we did, things I try to carry in my program for sure that just sets you up for success later on: small details, the expectations of how he wanted us to carry ourselves to represent Michigan State hockey, from our look and the way we acted, the way we treat kids in the arena and around town. I just think he hit everything. He was the most detailed and prepared coach I ever had the pleasure of playing for or working with and that didn’t just involve hockey; it involved the way you carried yourself as a human being, a Michigan State hockey player, as a hockey player in general, so his impact was far-reaching.”
And Mason’s impact on the game was far greater than just the players he helped cultivate. Anastos, who eventually worked with Mason during his time as commissioner of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, said seeing Mason’s contributions to the game away from the rink left just as much of an impression.
“Players like me who played for him understand how he impacted us, his teammates in the locker room, on campus, here, but what I had a chance to see was his impact in the sport,” the Spartans’ bench boss said. “I got back Friday from the NCAA rules meetings, and he’s always in the back of my mind, because for all the years I watched him from a different vantage point, not so much as a player, but he put the game first. He was one of the few guys that you always knew were in leadership roles, would put himself out there and the game always came first. His position was never related on a national topic in what would benefit him or what was going to benefit his program – he always felt that hey, if it’s good for the game, it will be good for our program and it will be good for Ron Mason.
“That always sticks with me, as recent as this week as we were deliberating on issues as part of the rules committee, I always kept thinking we have to do what’s in the best interest of the game.”