Q&A: Rick Comley
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Just two years removed from a national championship — his second as head coach, adding to the one earned at Northern Michigan in 1991 — we spoke with Michigan State coach Rick Comley about his team's struggles this year. That has included losing a rash of players to early departure, injury, and other troubles that have been well-chronicled.
Comley: Once we lost those kids in the summer, we kind of went 'Uh oh.' We knew major it would be a major adjustment. We knew how good (Justin) Abdelkader and (Tim) Kennedy were, but (defenseman Mike) Ratchuk was on the verge of becoming a major player in this league. You can't replace them at that time. You try to protect yourself in recruiting, but you can't just give out that money (in scholarships) without knowing (if players are leaving).
But we thought we could compete, maybe for the 3-6 spot. For that to happen, some of the returning guys had to take steps.
CHN: And that didn't happen as much.
Comley. No. (Matt) Schepke is in the ballpark. But losing (Nick) Sucharski — we were 4-2-2 when he got hurt. He was our only returning centerman. His season ended, then we had the incident at Michigan. So our roster is thin. The players we have worked hard, tried hard. Everything sounds like an excuse, but we were 4-2-2 when we lose Sucharski. Then we went on the long road stretch. It was the worst timing possible. Since we've been home the last three weeks, we're 3-1-2. We've become respectable.
What we might have gained is, a lot of the young kids have gotten to play a lot of hockey. But they are worn out. We don't even have 12 forwards. We called up two (club) students. We cut practices back to 45 minutes. It's been an unbelievable challenge.
CHN: Well, you've heard the criticism again, but you heard that in the first couple of years at Michigan State, and then won a national championship. So ...
Comley: We're a big-time program, and there's expectations and that's all fine. I will get criticism, which is fine. It's the way it is, as you know. The perception is that I do a pretty good job but not a great job. That's how people view me. But I firmly believe we'll bounce back. We'll still be pretty young again next year, because we need to bring in eight to 10 freshmen.
It's human nature to a point. But I don't (worry). I don't dwell on it too much. In an ideal situation you can cover your losses, deal with good or bad losses. But our talent wasn't deep enough to do that.
CHN: The guy you have to feel bad for is (senior goalie) Jeff Lerg. There's the stat where last week was the first game you won all year when allowing two or more goals (a 3-2 win).
Comley: Lerg knows. I really don't (feel bad). He's the real deal. He's had a tremendous career, he's had great national recognition — everything from Sullivan Award to Michigan State's Male Athlete of the Year, to a Hobey finalist, to a National Championship. And I've seen him be better than ever this year. He's go the 'C' on his jersey, and his quality of play, and how he's gone about his job, I've gained more respect for him this year than any other. He should not feel bad. He should be proud of what's he done.
CHN: When you decided to suspend Conboy and Tropp, was there any concern that players would think you went too far and you would lose them — that some might have thought coach was going a little crazy? Did you talk to them?
Comley: I talked to Jeff. At first I think he thought it was too excessive, which I understand completely. But we didn't lose the team because of it. Once they saw the reaction to it, nationally, it really started to sink in. I'm confident Corey Tropp will be reinstated. He is in school, going to class. Conboy, maybe he wasn't the right fit to begin with. Corey is around. I told him, if he just continues to represent himself properly, I'm sure he will be reinstated (for next season).
CHN: Your first few years there, there were times when you drew a tough line, such as with A.J. Thelen, and you got criticized. But then you won a national championship, so clearly your way of doing things worked.
Comley: I've always believed, we all have to have our standard. I always draw the line. You've got to be on the side of what's right.
CHN: On another note, what's your take on the whole expansion idea — or the shifting of teams.
Comley: I will support Huntsville (into the CCHA) myself. I don't think the league will. But I supported Fairbanks, supported Anchorage and St. Cloud when we were in the WCHA (at Northern Michigan). The question is how you do it, whether it's divisional or what.
CHN: Does that mean, even if Huntsville is the 13th team.
Comley: Yes. I just think of what's best for Michigan State. I support Huntsville, and then playing everyone twice (for 24 league games). That opens up games for me. I can add games with Minnesota and Wisconsin. I'd like to play for a Big Ten championship, even if it's not part of a formal league. I could be very much in the minority though. You'll say their location is bad, but they average 2,500 to 3,000 fans a game. There's many D-I teams that don't get 500. They are a viable program.
CHN: Absolutely. The issue, of course, is the cost.
Comley: Definitely. I just got a memo today (from the school) about budget cuts. We're all impacted. Maybe it will not happen.