The Spartans have had a great history in men’s college hockey. With their fair share of conference, regular season and tournament titles, three NCAA National Championships and two Hobey Baker award winners, the Spartans have some great accomplishments under their belt. None of those accomplishments would have been possible if it were not for the hard work and dedication put in by countless MSU hockey players over the years.
Over the next five weeks, Behind the Mask will be releasing each of our top five greatest Spartan hockey players of all time. Starting with No. 5 and working all the way up to No. 1. Each of us giving our own reasons on why each player deserves to be there.
Who will claim the top spot on the countdown?
* * *No. 1 Tom Ross (1972-1976) Jason Ruff
The No. 1 player on my list is one of the head authors of the MSU hockey record book, Tom Ross.
Ross played for the green and white from 1972-1976 during the tail end of the Amo Bessone era. It was an uncertain time for the club as the Spartans had endured some tough times following their first NCAA title in 1966. Three sub .500 seasons in the five years after their first championship had eroded enthusiasm for the program.
However at the start of the 1971-72 season things started to turn the Spartans’ way. While MSU never made it to the postseason (only four teams were selected to participate in a four team tournament) they were becoming more of a hot ticket on campus. By the time Munn Ice Arena was built in 1974, winning had became more common and interest in the hockey program grew exponentially. So much so that by the end of the 1976 season, Munn had set an MSU hockey attendance record of 157,567 attendees in only its second year of operation.
Ross was a major part of that upswing.
During Ross’s senior season in 1976, Michigan State finished with 20 WCHA wins (a school record). However, MSU lost in the second round of the WCHA tournament to Herb Brooks’s Minnesota Golden Gophers in a triple overtime thriller at Munn Ice Arena ruining the Spartans’ hopes of their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1967.
While Ross himself never won any awards, his name is highlighted along the Spartan record book. He holds the most career goals (138), assists (186) and points (324) of any Spartan. Ross also holds claim to both single season (29) and career (72) MSU power play goal records. Finally, Tom Ross also holds the MSU record for most points in a season (105).
Like I said, this guy virtually wrote the MSU record book. In fact, it could be argued that had the Hobey Baker Award been around in 1976 (its first recipient was in 1981), Ross would have easily been a finalist, if not the winner.
It is for these tremendous exploits, in addition to revitalizing the Spartan hockey program, that earns Ross the coveted No. 1 spot on my list.
No. 1 Jeff Lerg (2006-2009) Max Benoit
There were numerous candidates that I was considering for the No. 1 spot on my list of the greatest Spartans of all time. There was one player that rose above all others in my mind. That player is none other than Spartan netminder, Jeff Lerg.
Standing at only 5-foot-6, there was no doubt that Lerg was definitely one of the smallest players in the entire NCAA. The fact that he was small did not hinder Lerg throughout his career as a Spartan. Jeff was a workhorse playing in over 30 games in each of his four years at MSU. He also played in 61 consecutive games from 2006-2007.
Accumulating 3,996 saves over his career, Lerg has nearly 900 more saves than the next Spartan goaltender on the list. Lerg is also in the top five in nearly every major Spartan goaltending category over a career. Including goals against average, wins, shutouts and save percentage. Holding the top spot in both games played (146) and saves (3,996).
Not only was Lerg consistently good during the regular season, he was clutch when it came to the NCAA tournament. Lerg played the tournament of his life in 2007 when he lead the Spartans to their third National Championship. Stopping 58 of 61 shots in the Frozen Four, Lerg was named to the all-tournament team in 2007.
I was in awe while watching the 2007 final against heavily favored Boston College. Lerg made big save after big save, just to keep the Spartans at a tie. Finally Justin Abdelkader put home a last second game winning goal in the third period to allow the Spartans to win it. Without Lerg between the pipes, Abdelkader does not get a chance to score that goal.
Lerg is one of only three other goalies to bring home at least one win in three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. He boasts a career NCAA tournament goals against average of 1.62 as well as a tournament .947 save percentage. Both place him in the top 10 all time in NCAA history for goaltenders. So it is safe to say that he did well in postseason play.
Lerg’s accomplishments on the ice speak for themselves. But how he carried himself while off of the ice is what led him to become an alternate captain his junior year, and captain his senior year. Not often do you see a goalie wear the “C” on his jersey. Since they are known to be a breed of their own, and focused more on other stuff than other players, it just is not a likely sight to see. Lerg just had that sort of respect amongst his peers regardless. His teammates knew there was no better option.
I admired Lerg growing up. Being a smaller goaltender myself, Lerg was someone I could look to as an inspiring figure. He was not the ideal size for a goalie in the NCAA. He probably had plenty of doubters while on his way to Spartan glory. He was the definition of a hard worker.
No. 1 Tom Ross (1972-1976) Brian Bobal
Skim through the Michigan State hockey record books and you will see a man by the name of Tom Ross at the top of most every offensive categories. Ross was a teammate of my No. 2 pick, Steve Colp, during his four-year, 155 game career at State from 1972-1976.
In his freshman year, Ross tallied a respectable 34 points, but he really skyrocketed into the Spartan record books with his final three seasons. In his sophomore campaign, Ross’ production almost tripled as he scored an astounding 88 points. The following season, he kept improving as he totaled 97 points. As for his senior year, Ross went out in style as he became the first Spartan to top the 100-point plateau. He ended up finishing the season with 105 points.
Unfortunately, in Ross’ tenure at Michigan State, the team was not able to live up to the glory days that had preceded them in the mid-1960s. The Spartans never qualified for the NCAA tournament in Ross’s tenure despite having, arguably one of the best offensive duos in history with Ross and Colp.
One thing surely lacking from Ross’s resume is a Hobey Baker Award. However, in his time, the award did not exist. He would have been a sure Hobey Baker finalist in his final two years and he would have won the award in his senior year for sure.
Instead, we just have to look at the records he holds. Ross either owns or shares the records for most career goals (138), most career assists (186), most career points (324), most career power play goals (72), points in one season (105), power play goals in a season (29), most goals in a game (5), most goals in one period (3), and, one of the most impressive overall, most consecutive games with a point (78).
If all that was not enough to prove Ross is the best Spartan of all time, let us take a quick look at how those stats fare in the NCAA record books. His career total of 324 points ranks second on the NCAA’s list of all time scorers behind Dave Rost of Army, who scored 330 points. The 72 career power play goals he scored is the most in NCAA history.
It is astounding that the Spartans were not able to crack the Frozen Four during Ross’ time. It just goes to show how hard it is to have success in this sport. Here the Spartans had two of the best college hockey players in history on the same team and yet they were never able to win more than 23 games.
Even though he was never able to get his team to the promised land, Ross should still go down as the best Michigan State Spartan of all time.Top MSU Hockey Players of All Time: No 2 Brian: Bobal: Steve Colp Max Benoit: Kip Miller Jason Ruff: Kip Miller Top MSU Hockey Players of All Time: No 3 Brian Bobal: Jeff Lerg Max Benoit: Tom Ross Jason Ruff: Mike Donnelly Top MSU Hockey Players of All Time: No 4 Brian Bobal: Kip Miller Max Benoit: Ryan Miller Jason Ruff: Ryan Miller Top MSU Hockey Players of All Time: No 5 Brian Bobal: Ryan Miller Max Benoit: Mike Donnelly Jason Ruff: Mike York
Brian Bobal, Max Benoit and Jason Ruff are multimedia reporters for Impact Sports.
Photo: Jonathan Yales/Impact Sports