James Murphy | NHL.com correspondent
Jan 18, 2007, 12:00 PM EST
Last Friday, less than a week after he notched his 700th win and joined an elite club that includes only four other coaches (two active), Michigan State's Rick Comley acknowledged his amazing milestone, but somehow the conversation kept going back to the two-game set with Alaska-Fairbanks, he and his team were preparing for. He also continually praised his current roster for their resilience this season and said he couldn't be any prouder of them.
"What this team has gone through this season and the way they have handled adversity has been impressive," Comley said. "Having to adjust after their captain Drew Miller left unexpectedly and the way these other seniors have stepped up and provided leadership, I'm really proud of them. This is a young team, but they've fought through and we still have a good chance to do something big here in the second half."
That's probably why the Spartans would go on to sweep that series and improve their record to 14-8-1 and also why Comley is now part of the 700-win club, joining his mentor Ron Mason, Bob Peters, and two other active coaches, Boston College's Jerry York and Boston University's Jack Parker.
"I've known Rick for a long time and as much as I appreciate what a great coach he is, I appreciate even more what a great guy he is," Parker said. "This is why he is successful and can get his kids to perform. The kids appreciate what a character guy he is and I've seen that on and off the ice throughout his career. He has risen to a lot of challenges and in turn so have his teams. He knows how to coach his players and more importantly he knows how to treat them."
Junior forward Bryan Lerg knows exactly what Parker is talking about. That's why he grabbed the game puck for Comley following the landmark win, a 4-1 victory over then No. 4 Miami.
"My plan all along was to get that puck for him because we had to give him something to remember and also something to show him how thankful we are to play for him," Lerg said. "It's an absolute honor to play for Coach Comley. He brings so much to the table and we learn so much from him every day. He's a hard coach and his practices are tough, but he's fair. Playing for him and knowing him has made me a better person."
Parker could also completely understand Comley deflecting praise and steering the conversation away from his own accomplishments to those of his current team as well as preparing for the next game.
"Hey I just got my 750th win and after the game when someone asked me how I felt, I asked 'I did?' I didn't even know," Parker recalled. "Part of the job is the highs and lows and in this business, unfortunately you don't have time to enjoy the highs. You get the win and right away you look ahead to the next game and start preparing."
Mason, now the athletic director at Michigan State, agreed and has similar feelings about Comley, who he considers a very close friend.
"As a coach you're always looking for that next win," Mason said. "I know when I got my 700th, I couldn't and didn't really try to enjoy it. Now I can sit back and reflect, but it's hard when you're living in the moment and I guess that's what makes Rick and the other coaches who've done that, great coaches. They live for the moment and within each game.
Rick is one of those coaches and I have a great respect for him and what he's done."
Comley would eventually discuss the 700th win, but not without thanking his players and coaching staff, both past and present.
"I've been in this business a long time, it's been my only job, so yes to reach a milestone like this is special, of course, but you don't get here without breaks and plenty of help along the way," Comley pointed out.
Comley's first break and the one that opened the door to a 33-year, 700-plus wins, career came in 1972. Mason, then head coach of Lake Superior State called on Comley to come on board as a grad assistant. One year later, he was the head coach, and three years after that he began a 25-year tenure at Northern Michigan which would be highlighted by the NCAA championship in 1991, won in what many consider the greatest college hockey game ever played between Parker's Terriers and Comley's Wildcats.
"It's funny how life works," Comley said. "I mean, this has been my only job and coaching has been my life. I guess moments like that win put that into perspective because really you go this long by living day-by-day and coaching game-by-game.
"I mean I can think back now to that Northern Michigan championship game with Boston University and easily say that was the highlight of my career, but probably 10 years from now I can say similar things about this moment and getting my 700th win."
Comley arrived in Lansing in 2002, once again grabbing the torch from Mason and last year, his coaching magic shined through again as he took the Spartans to a CCHA Tournament title and within one game of the Frozen Four. Even though his team has had an up-and down season, he likes their chances in the second half.
"I'm looking forward to the stretch run here," he said. "I think we have a chance to do some good things and make a run."
Maybe after that run is over he will be able to take that game puck and look back at all the other runs and wins he's had.