Several former Griffins, led by one-time team captain Danton Cole, are making their mark in Muskegon this season.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Hockey fans who visit L.C. Walker Arena in Muskegon this winter may wonder if they wandered into the wrong rink.
On the bench of the Muskegon Fury are a number of familiar faces, including Danton Cole, the former Griffins captain who is in his first season as a head coach after serving as an assistant in Grand Rapids under both Guy Charron and Bruce Cassidy.
Joining the popular Cole in the United Hockey League (UHL) are two other players who should be familiar to Griffins fans. Bruce Ramsay, the Griffins' all-time penalty minutes leader, and Todd Nelson, the first player ever signed by the Griffins franchise, are both player-assistant coaches with the Fury.
The Grand Rapids connection doesn't stop with the coaching staff for the Muskegon hockey organization, which has a working relationship with the Griffins this season.
Philippe Plante is on a two-way contract with Grand Rapids, with whom he has played this season as has Nelson. Long-time Fury players Scott Feasby and Mark Vilneff have seen limited action in Grand Rapids during past seasons.
The players have rallied behind Cole, who was popular with both fans and teammates in Grand Rapids during his five seasons with the Griffins organization, first as a player and later as an assistant coach.
"Danton has done a remarkable job in his first year as coach and I enjoy playing for him," Nelson says. "I didn't know what to expect coming into this league and I don't think Danton did either, but he's doing a fantastic job." "He's a rookie coach, but you won't find many guys more knowledgeable than Danton," Ramsay says. "He knows the game and has been around the game long enough that he understands how to relate to players." "Danton is the main reason I decided to come back," adds Plante. "I knew he was a good coach." In fact, Cole's success as a coach has surprised no one with the exception of Cole himself.
"Coaching is something I wasn't sure I wanted to do, but I got hooked," he says. "I'm just fortunate that the Griffins and now the Fury have given me the opportunity." Cole decided to apply for the Fury job this summer after consulting with Griffins general manager Bob McNamara, Cassidy and Charron, along with several coaches for whom he had played, including Dave Allison, Jacques Lemaire and Ron Mason.
He continues to consult with his mentors as he adjusts to being the bench boss in Muskegon. "All those guys are nice resources to have and I would be a fool not to use them," Cole says.
The advice is apparently working. Through December, the Muskegon Fury had posted a 22-10-1 record on the strength of a veteran defense that had allowed the fewest goals in the 14-team UHL.
Cole gives a lot of credit to his veteran players, most of all Ramsay and Nelson. "I can't put enough emphasis on the contributions of Bruce and Todd," he says. "They've proven invaluable." Ramsay and Nelson meet regularly with Cole, offering their opinions and perspective while also giving the head coach an opportunity to vent when necessary. "Sometimes I just need them to listen to me complain," Cole says.
His former teammates have become more than friends. "I could tell Rammer' to jump off a bridge and if he thought it would help us win, he'd go out and do it," Cole says. "You need that kind of support in the room, especially as a first-year coach." Aside from a few adjustments, Cole hasn't changed from his days in Grand Rapids. "He's still as intense as ever," Ramsay says. "He still has a player's heart. He gets just as excited as the rest of us when we win and just as disappointed when we lose." "He didn't become a Stanley Cup winner without listening to his coaches," says Nelson, referring to Cole's 1995 NHL championship season with the New Jersey Devils. "He has a lot to bring to this team." While Cole confesses he would like to coach again some day in Grand Rapids, where he still lives with his family, he admits that he has more pressing business to consider. "I have to prove myself at this level first," he says.
His assistant coaches think he's on the right track. "Every night's a dogfight for points," Nelson says, "but it would be disappointing if we weren't competing for the championship at the end of the season."