Adam Nightingale explains how he plans to resurrect MSU hockey
EAST LANSING – Amid the frenzy of a coaching search, it’s easy to forget about the human element in all of it.
On Thursday, when new Michigan State hockey coach Adam Nightingale began to think about the whirlwind that’s been his last couple weeks, his lip quivered, he teared up and stopped talking. He was thinking about his wife, Kristin, whom he met at Michigan State two decades ago and who, by his side, has followed his vagabond-ish hockey career as a player and coach — from his first gig, making $16,000 a year, to coaching the Detroit Red Wings, to their most recent and longest family stop, living in Canton, Michigan, while Nightingale coached the US National Team Development Program, and now back here, to East Lansing.
“My wife sent me a nice text (when I got the MSU job),” Nightingale said during a roundtable meeting Thursday with reporters. “She just said, ‘You know, God’s timing is perfect.’ And she’s right.
“When you’re a coach, a lot of times it’s a selfish profession, because you’re moving, you’re moving all the time, a lot of hours. And just, you don’t get here without support.”
Nightingale, his wife and three children — ages 14, 11 and 9, the youngest born while he was the director of operations at MSU — will move again soon. He’s hoping this time for a long while.
Nightingale has been MSU’s coach less than a week. He got the call Sunday in Germany — where he’d been coaching the USNTDP Under-18 team at the World Championships. His hiring of him was announced Tuesday, about the time he landed after 22 hours of flying. Waiting for him were 750 text messages, both well-wishers and coaches hoping to be part of his staff from him. He quickly took his NCAA coaches’ recruiting exam, then drove to Chicago to begin recruiting for MSU.
Wednesday, he met with his team via Zoom — many of them had already left campus after the semester. Next Monday, he’ll be formally introduced. But Thursday was his first chance for him to explain how he plans to resurrect MSU’s long-dormant hockey program. He did so over a wide-ranging 45-minute discussion with the media.
Here are the highlights of that conversation, the questions edited for brevity and clarity:
What does the program need more than anything?
Nightingale: Well, I look at a lot of what it has already. I think we can dwell on what’s not there. My focus is going to be on what we’re going to do with it. You look at the building (Munn Ice Arena). You look at the renovation. You look at the history, I match it up against anyone’s in college hockey. We need to be the spot where every guy on our team that comes in and plays for us both believes and wants to play in the National Hockey League. I’ve been fortunate to be around the best coaches. My mentors are the best coaches in the world. … I know I can help guys get there. And I think that’s what Michigan State is. It’s high end, it’s A(-level) players. And we’re going to go out we’re going to put together a staff that’s going to develop players better than anyone and we’re going to get high-end guys.
You’ve just been coaching guys who are at that recruiting age. They were toddlers when Michigan State was winning. What’s your sense of what teenage recruits think right now of MSU? And how do you get them to see it differently?
Nightingale: I think one thing, for sure, is players want a relationship with their coach. They want to know that their coach sees them as a person, first, and a player, second. They want to know that the coach is invested in helping them achieve their dreams within the team framework. And they want to connect with them. I really feel confident, again, not claiming to be a perfect coach, but if you ask guys that have played for me, I feel like I treat my players with respect. They know I coach them like they’re my son. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. … Our practices this year were hard, really hard, like the hardest. And that’s how you develop. And so back to the point about wanting to play in the National Hockey League. It’s really hard to get there. But that’s our job as coaches, to set up a practice development model. And we’re not going to have a short-term vision. I think it’s important for kids to know that it’s a narrow-sighted vision. … We’re going to train hard and we’re going to work on our skills and our player development all the way through the week. It’s not going to be ramped down on Wednesday (as the game nears). Because I have a long-term vision for their development.
I’ve been fortunate, (with) my different stops, and then I think the one in the National Hockey League is really important. I think you have to know how to coach high-end (players), and you have to have experience with it. And not everyone has that. I feel fortunate to have done it. It’s not just like I watched it on video or read a book or went to a coach’s seminar. I was on the bench and meeting with the best players. … I’ve (coached) the top 14-year-olds in the world (at Shattuck St. Mary’s in Minnesota) and all the way up to the best players (in the NHL).
How do you convince fans, who’ve been through a lot of losing and several coaches over the last decade, that you’re the one?
Nightingale: I think that comes with time. I understand people have different opinions. I’m more worried about my reputation. I’m not perfect, but I think my reputation for how I treat people, how I treat my players, how I treat my staff … It’s going to take time. I understand that. And all I ask is, we need your support. We want Munn to be loud, like the loudest in college hockey. And that’s our job to give you something to cheer about. And I understand that and we’re starting to work on that now.
You are succeeding two coaches who were great players, both friends of yours. And they failed. So how do you wrap your arms around that?
Nightingale: Well, they were a lot better players than me. (Kidding aside) You know what was great is, I talked to Danton (Cole) for an hour yesterday and I think that says a ton about him and I think that’s what Spartans do, you stick together. I know this isn’t easy. I don’t sit on the sidelines saying like, ‘What are you doing?’ I know this is a really hard job. But I’m thankful for what he did. I mean, I think I have laid that foundation, obviously, you saw the facility. And then when I think of Spartans, I think of humble and I think of class. And I thought of both of those when Danton took the time. I’m excited about it. I understand where people will say (they have their doubts). It is a hard job, but that’s why it’s one of the most desirable, and I believe we’re going to get it back to where it should be.
You mentioned getting the high-end talent. Obviously, the national development program really sells itself a lot of times. How do you go from that to having to be the salesman?
Nightingale: I think I’d go back to my unique background, the places I’ve been. It’s not just there. And my reputation for developing players. The hockey world is a small world and I feel confident with my reputation that way. Not that I’m not going to keep growing as a coach. I know that. That’s why when I put together a staff, I don’t want yes-men, I want guys that are going to push me, help me get better … (I) think my time in the NHL — if I’m a kid, trying to make a decision and I want to play in the NHL, I think there’s a ton of merit to saying, ‘This guy didn’t play there, he coached there. And he knows what they’re looking for.’
What’s your timetable for putting together a staff and do you have some people in mind?
Nightingale: I’ve got some people in mind, but there’s been a lot of people who’ve reached out. My job now is to go get the best guys. That’s the focus. I want guys that have a passion for helping people get better, and, on the recruiting piece, a passion for getting out and connecting, have the ability to connect with a variety of age levels, that are going to go into a rink with the Spartan logo on and do it with class and do with integrity. And I think there’s some really good candidates out there and I’m starting to work through that now.
We’ve seen it with Mel Tucker over in football, he’s kind of reworked his staff to have someone who’s monitoring the transfer portal. Do you have thoughts on how to not just manage the portal, but also player personnel and scouting? Do craft a position for that kind of role?
For sure. I think you want a guy that’s bread-and-butter is that and he is really well connected, well respected, a great communicator. I think in hockey, advisors are a big part of the game. And I think it’s important to embrace that and understand that an advisor’s job is to advise players to make the best decisions and put them in the best spot, so eventually the player gets paid. And that’s when the advisor gets paid. And we have the same goal as coaches. So I’m not a guy who pushes (them away). I work together with them. We’re on the same page. And so that (assistant coach) really needs to be well respected in that regard. … I think now with the place I just was (USNTDP), I mean, you’re dealing with the best players, with the top advisors and learning how to develop those relationships — and they know when they call me, I’m going to be honest with them.
What if anything impressed you about Alan Haller?
Nightingale: I think we did new employee training together (back in 2010). Not that we were close, but he was ultra-professional. He was a police officer before and my dad was a state trooper. So there’s a connection there. I really liked his professionalism, and, in meeting with him, Spartan hockey is really important to him. I wouldn’t have taken the job (otherwise.). … They were extensive (in the interview process), and the resources that he’s given us now, 100% he’s all in.
What do you want to be the style of play and identity of the program?
Nightingale: I think you’ve got to play the game fast. Our identity will be really clear when you watch us. I think that’s one thing about Tom Izzo’s teams, I think you can switch jerseys and you would know it’s Spartan basketball. And that’s what we’re going to do with our team. We’re going to play smart, we’re going to play fast, we’re going to play hard.
Can you share some of your conversation with Izzo?
Nightingale: He was great. Again. I mean, you look at his gift ($1.1 million to the Munn Ice Arena project), I told him when (the interview process) started, regardless of if I get this, I just want to let you know how much it meant us alums . I think that’s where Michigan State’s different. And Mel Tucker called me and said, ‘Whatever you need, Adam.’ And I think, you can see (Izzo’s) passion. He remembers when Spartan hockey was at its best. I don’t think a guy gives that amount of his own money if he’s not passionate about this. It’s pretty, pretty cool.
Did you hear from Rick Comley (who you played for at MSU)?
Nightingale: yeah. That was really important to me. I reached out to Coach Comley. He reached out to me first and said, ‘Congrats.’ When I look at Rick, he’s one of the legends of college hockey. And we were fortunate to have him here. And he said to me, ‘I’m going to be there to support you.’ That meant a lot to me. You can talk about this or that (how things ended), but I think that’s a big thing we need to do as a group, as an alumni, is we’ve got to unify the group and be one. Whether you played for this coach or that coach or you’re good, great player, walk-on, whatever, you’re a Spartan.
MORE: Couch: Why Alan Haller and Jeff Blashill see Adam Nightingale as an ideal fit as MSU’s new hockey coach
Contact Graham Couch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.