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Alabama-Huntsville coach Danton Cole, center, talks with his goalies Cameron Talbot, left, and John Griggs during practice Friday at the Coliseum.

Alabama sweet for hockey lifer

Of course the man can pick Fort Wayne out of a lineup. Fair-sized city, nice arena, lots of people in orange saying unkind things, right?

Or so that was Danton Cole’s fate when he was the head coach of the Muskegon Fury in the United Hockey League. Greg Puhalski was coaching the Fort Wayne Komets then, and the two teams always seemed to be jockeying for position in the standings.

“Yeah, I’ve been through there a few times,” Cole says with a chuckle.

And so he won’t need a GPS this weekend to find Memorial Coliseum, although he will find it somewhat larger than the last time he was in the building (“I think the last time I was there they had the top up, but it wasn’t completely finished,” he says). And he might need to explain, at least a little, how he went from coaching pros in the bush leagues to coaching college kids in Huntsville, Ala.

Cole’s Alabama-Huntsville team (12-17-3) will play Miami of Ohio at 4 p.m. today in the first game of the NCAA Midwest Regional at the Coliseum. Miami is 27-7-7.

It’s really not as much of an odyssey as it sounds.

Sure, Cole played six seasons in the NHL for five different teams, and he’s got a Stanley Cup ring from his days as a New Jersey Devil. He won 222 games coaching in the American and United Hockey leagues. And he’s got a Colonial Cup ring from 2001-02, when he coached the Fury to the UHL title.

But all that came later. First, it was Sparty who had his heart.

“Yeah, I was a pretty big college hockey fan,” says Cole, who grew up in Pontiac, Mich. “We had season tickets to Michigan State.”

So no surprise that he wound up starring at Michigan State, where he played a record 180 games and skated on three Frozen Four teams and one NCAA championship team. In 1989, he was honored as Michigan State’s top student-athlete.

Fast forward 17 years to 2006, and he was going back to college as an assistant at Bowling Green. And then taking over as the head coach at Alabama-Huntsville in 2007.

Home again.

“The UHL was a darn good league at the time,” Cole says. “For learning how to run a bench and do things managerially, it was outstanding.

“But the college game is my roots, and it’s been great. The level of play is outstanding, and the age group is great in terms of creating a learning environment. It’s a neat situation, and I really enjoy it.”

It’s also a situation liable to surprise people who only give college hockey a passing glance. Huntsville, Ala., after all, is no one’s idea of a hockey hotbed – except that it is one.

“This program is actually 30 years old. And we’ve been at every level of college hockey,” Cole says. “What’s really neat here is the youth hockey program. It’s a pretty big program: a full roster of Triple-A teams and six high school teams. There’s a lot of hockey here, and everything has kind of grown from that.”

His team has grown a lot, too. The Chargers lost five times to regional qualifier Bemidji State during the regular season but upset Bemidji 1-0 and beat Niagara 3-2 in overtime to win the College Hockey America Conference tournament and punch their NCAA ticket.

“We have had some stretches where things were going all right,” Cole says. “One of the things that helps us is, being underdogs, we have to prepare and be ready whenever the puck drops. If we have a few guys taking a night off, we’re in trouble.”

bensmith@jg.net

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