When Danton Cole played hockey, he wouldn’t have ever been described as a star – but he got a star’s hockey education.
Throughout his 11-year professional career, Cole played under Hall of Famers and Stanley Cup winners, ranging from Jacques Lemaire to Larry Robinson and Terry Crisp. Before turning pro, he played four seasons at Michigan State University for Ron Mason, still the second-winningest coach in NCAA Division I hockey history.
Cole has parlayed the lessons he learned under some of the brightest minds in hockey to become one of the top coaches in the United States at developing young players. Since retiring as a player 15 years ago, he has coached at almost every level, most notably with the Detroit Red Wings’ AHL affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins, and the University of Alabama-Huntsville.
Since 2013, Cole has been a coach with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program (NTDP). He discussed his role – and the role of all coaches – as they try to develop young players and people.
USA Hockey: What do you consider your primary goals as a coach?
Danton Cole: At the end of the day, we have players for two years during a formative age. We want them to be better men when they’re leaving us. That’s how they act on the ice and off the ice, representing the United States. We know that they’re going to become better hockey players and get stronger, because of how we do things. But we have to try to make an impact on them personally as young men. As coaches, that has to be our main goal.
USA Hockey: How do you connect with players, to not only help them become better young men, but also better hockey players?
Cole: You have to get to know them. You have to understand and you have to care what they’re going through. You have to develop that relationship. You don’t have influence on young men right away. That takes time. We spend an awful lot of time together. When there’s a little adversity or things go wrong for them, we stick with them. They understand pretty quickly that we have their best interests at heart. I think it works out pretty well.
USA Hockey: When a player starts at the NTDP, how do you identify his strengths and weaknesses and track his progress during his two years with the program?
Cole: The two years a player has with us are vastly different. The first year is the biggest one where it’s important to segment the season. There’s a lot the guys have to learn. They come pretty well equipped athletically and pretty average sometimes with the league we have to jump into with the USHL. We build on things and we’ll have a certain structure. Coach Granato and I, we make a list of habits and concepts we want to work on as we start going down the line. You’ll pick the 5-10 things that you want to get really good at as a base and you build off of that. It kind of moves at its own pace.
USA Hockey: The NTDP is a developmental program that preaches going through the right process more than win-loss record or stats. Is it difficult to get kids to buy in to that?
Cole: It is difficult. Most of our guys and most young players, stats are how they evaluate how they played and what they figure their worth is. For us, it’s the education of, where maybe they had a game where they didn’t score and don’t get an assist, but maybe they’re the best player on the ice. That’s a hard thing for some of these guys. We teach that there’s different ways of evaluating. We try to get that across to them. The one good thing we have is hundreds of really good players who have come through the program, where maybe this guy had one goal at Christmas. Or maybe another guy didn’t score in the second half of the season. Some of these guys are NHL all-stars and guys who have won Stanley Cups who have gone through our process. Information helps, and we can supply them with other ways to evaluate and understand that there are different things that go into winning hockey games.
USA Hockey: Why do you think the NTDP has such a strong track record developing players?
Cole: When they come into orientation camp, we start setting the expectation of ruthlessly competing against your own best self. If you push your teammates to be better, they’ll push you to be better. That’s a different mindset for these young men to have. It’s a maturation process. Whether it’s college or pro, or even bantams or midgets or younger, guys and girls are eventually going to have to go through that process.