Peers React to Comley Retirement
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Rick Comley is in a select group of coaches in many ways. His 700-plus wins places him in the top five all time, along with active coaches like Jerry York and Jack Parker. He has been a successful coach at three programs, like York, and won national titles at two different schools, like York.
And along with those mentioned above, he joins other active coaches like Jeff Jackson, Don Lucia and George Gwozdecky as active coaches who have won multiple national championships.
Comley announced yesterday that he is retiring at the end of this season, ending a 38-year run as head coach at Lake Superior State, Northern Michigan and Michigan State. The reaction from his contemporaries was one of surprise, reverence and praise.
"He's really been a terrific friend of mine," York said. "We've shared a lot of weak coffee at different rinks in Canada and the United States over the years. I have a great deal of respect for his opinion, not only on recruits but the state of the game. He's very innovative the way he coaches his clubs."
Comley started at Lake Superior, then started the program at Northern Michigan in the WCHA. The Wildcats won a national title in 1991, and Comley was athletic director there as the team moved to the CCHA. Later he was chair of the NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Committee.
"He was a great coach at Northern [Michigan], that's where I first knew him and the teams he had up there," Michigan coach Red Berenson said. "I remember the one team he had when they won it all [in 1991]. I think Dallas Drake was there. They had a real powerhouse team. I saw that game on TV when they beat [Boston University] in triple overtime [8-7]. ... That's when I first knew of Rick Comley."
Said York, "I always think of him starting all over again at Northern, starting a brand new hockey program, going from absolutely nothing to a really a powerful team. It was great to watch that develop. It was not very fun to play against.
"I remember those 13-hour bus rides back to Bowling Green, thinking, 'Boy, he's been recruiting some really good players. I better keep up.'"
Said Berenson, "When [NMU] wanted to join the CCHA I thought it was a good addition because of him. He brought a lot to the table. Northern came back into the CCHA and he was the athletic director and the coach."
More than anyone, York and Comley's trajectories have been similar. And, of course, they met in a classic NCAA championship game, in 2007, won by Michigan State over Boston College on a late goal.
"We came from a lot of similar backgrounds on how to coach and how to handle college hockey programs," York said. "We learned from each other. ... I said to him in 2007, after the championship game, if we weren't going to win that game, I couldn't think of anyone better to congratulate and be shaking hands with. It was a really tough loss for us."
In 2001, he left Northern Michigan to replace the retiring Ron Mason, the all-time wins leader, at Michigan State.
"When he got the job at Michigan State then we saw him a lot more," Berenson said. "He's had his ups and downs there but that  national championship is pretty neat. We haven't been close to a national championship in a number of years now, so good for him. But I am surprised [about his retirement]. I don't know what the scenario is or what prompted that. Maybe he thought it was time. He's been a respected coach, when you look at the longevity, 38 years, and the wins."
Jackson is a bit younger than York, Parker and Berenson, but has a common Lake Superior connection to Comley — where Jackson won two national titles. And he has a summer home near Comley's. Jackson is also a Michigan State grad, and of course plays MSU often as coach at Notre Dame now.
"I always had great respect for him. He's a class man," Jackson said. "He's always been a great ambassador of the game. ... He's always been a good coach, but he's always a sincere and honest guy too."
Jackson said the pair also exchange football tickets now and then, what with Comley's daughter at Michigan State.
"When I first started in the business, he went out of his way to mentor me," Jackson said. "You certainly respect guys that are in it for more than just victories. I believe he was that way with his players too. ... He's respected not just for what he knows, but also how he treats people.
"There's such a respectful relationship from coach to opponent. When we play them, the games are always well played, it's a clean game, there's never any carry over."
Of course, Jackson's name will be thrown around as a possible replacement for Comley, but he's not even thinking that now. Jackson had interest nine years ago, of course, but it didn't cause any issue between Jackson and Comley.
"I wanted what was in the best interest of the program," Jackson said. "I had interest, I'd be crazy not to if I knew I was going to get back to college hockey."
Comley's decision must make York, Parker and Berenson pause about their own possible retirements.
"As long as you enjoy what you're doing and look forward to going to work every day, that keeps you motivated and moving," York said. "I'm certain that myself, Red and Jack probably feel — well, I feel excited. But I can empathize with Rick; he's been in it a long time. Maybe he wants to get off the treadmill a little while and do other things.
"We're losing a true icon. It'll be sad to see him walk off that bench for the last time."