BIRD’S-EYE VIEW: Spartan Connection
Blog #23 – August 14, 2020
by John Peterson
Call it a trend. Call it a pipeline. Call it what you want.
The Kalamazoo Wings and Michigan State Spartans go together like spaghetti and meatballs.
By my count, 27 former Spartans have ended up in Kalamazoo at one point or another to wear the K-Wings’ red and blue (or green and gold, depending on the era). SIX Michigan State alums suited up for Kalamazoo last season alone.
Now, as an out-of-state transplant, I have no bias one way or another when it comes to Michigan college hockey. I’m a fan of the sport, and the Great Lakes State is one of the best in the entire country at producing professional hockey players.
We can’t ignore this simple fact: Players from every corner of the state have chosen to play professionally here in Kalamazoo. It’s a great hockey town and the K-Wings have a long-standing history in the community.
Sticking with the 2019-20 team for a moment, Matheson Iacopelli and Justin Kovacs hailed from Western Michigan University, Zach Diamantoni played at Northern Michigan University, Luke Sandler at Lake Superior State University, Cory Dunn skated at Adrian College, Chad McDonald at Ferris State University, and Eric Kattelus was a Michigan Tech alum.
Just to compare, only three University of Michigan alums have ever donned the K-Wings sweater.
17 K-Wings in team history were Tech alums. 15 played at Lake State and 15 at Northern. 12 players found Kalamazoo after going to school at Ferris.
Disclaimer: 37 Western alums have stayed home to play professionally in Kalamazoo, but that is to be expected in some cases. Convenience alone could make that fact make sense. It is worth noting that several of those former Broncos played five games or less with the K-Wings.
But history has shown there is something in the water down the road in East Lansing.
Yesterday’s announcement that Tanner Sorenson was returning for a fifth season in Kalamazoo actually inspired this blog. The speedy right winger played four seasons at Michigan State from 2011-2015. He was one of six Spartans alums to dress for the K-Wings last season.
Sorenson’s roommate Jake Hildebrand also wore the green and white. Hildebrand has appeared in 75 games for Kalamazoo the last two seasons. If he re-signs, the duo will be teammates for a third straight year and sixth season in their careers.
Another Michigan State overlap who made a brief pit stop with the K-Wings last season was Matt Berry. Kalamazoo acquired Berry in a late-season trade with Utah, but he only played a handful of shifts in his debut before a health issue resurfaced and he stepped away. Berry and Sorenson were teammates all four years in East Lansing.t
Vancouver Canucks prospect Mitch Eliot skated in seven games for Kalamazoo in 2019-20. The rookie defenseman spent two season with the Spartans from 2016-2018, before finishing his amateur eligibility in Canadian juniors with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting.
One of Kalamazoo’s talented rookies who showed big-time improvement late last season after an injury-plagued campaign was Michigan State alum Brennan Sanford. The winger finished with six goals and 11 points in 27 games, also showing some grit with a pair of fights along the way. Sanford could turn into a really nice piece to the puzzle if he can continue to grow in year two and stay healthy, assuming he decides to re-sign.
We can’t forget about Logan Lambdin. He only got a small taste of pro hockey, appearing in the final K-Wings game shortly after his senior season ended in March, but the coaches were impressed with what they saw. He’ll be a rookie in 2020-21 and should have a legitimate chance to make the team if he’s brought back.
NOT LONG AGO
You don’t need to go back very far to read into the relationship between former Spartans and the K-Wings. Here are a few examples that might still be fresh in the minds of K-Wings faithful.
Let’s start with Jake Chelios, the son of Hall of Famer Chris Chelios. Jake played eight games for Kalamazoo in 2014-15 after spending four years in East Lansing. He went on to play five NHL games for the Detroit Red Wings two seasons ago.
J.T. Stenglein had 31 points in 49 games for the K-Wings in 2017-18. That was his rookie season after four years at Michigan State. Stenglein decided to retire after that one season in Kalamazoo.
How about A.J. Thelen? The defenseman who spent two seasons with the Spartans, earning him a first round selection by the Minnesota Wild in 2004 finished his pro career playing in 65 games for the K-Wings in 2010-11.
Other Sparty alums who breezed through Kalamazoo briefly in recent years include Justin Hoomaian twice in 2015-16 and 2016-17, Brandon Warner in 2014-15, and Jay Sprague in 2010-11.
Diving further back through the archives, some of our longtime diehard fans might remember some household names who spent some quality time in Kalamazoo after playing collegiately at Michigan State.
Three college and pro teammates include Chad Alban, Mike Ford and Richard Keyes.
Alban attended MSU from 1994-1998 and skated in 162 games for the K-Wings 2002-2005. He left for Russia the next season…and Kalamazoo went on the win the championship that year. But Alban put together a nice pro career. Ford was a Spartan from 1995-1999 and 191 games for Kalamazoo from 2000-2003. Keyes went to school from 1994-1997 and followed that up by serving two stints with the K-Wings in 2000-01 and again in 2002-03.
That 2002-03 K-Wings team actually had a fourth Spartan alum, Matt Kruzich, who played his only 16 pro games in a Kalamazoo uniform.
A few of you might also remember the names Mitch Messier and Neil Wilkinson. Messier had four monster seasons in college and was selected by the Minnesota North Stars in the third round of the 1983 NHL Entry Draft. He spent the majority of his first five pro seasons in Kalamazoo from 1987-1992, averaging well over a point per game in 351 contests. Each of those seasons, Messier enjoyed call-ups to the North Stars for a total of 20 NHL games in his career.
Wilkinson was a second round pick of Minnesota in 1986 and only played one season at MSU, before going pro. The defenseman spent parts of three seasons with the K-Wings from 1988-1991 before embarking on a successful NHL career, featuring stops in Minnesota, San Jose, Chicago, Winnipeg and Pittsburgh.
Stopping short of naming every single Michigan State alum who ventured west to Kalamazoo afterward, we can’t forget on of the organization’s first legends.
Tom Ross donned the Spartans’ green and white from 1972-1976, before spending three of his four pro seasons with the K-Wings. The Detroit native had 82 points in 57 games as a rookie in 1977-78. Ross followed that up with 47 goals and 116 points in 72 games the next season, and parlayed that effort into 43 goals and 103 points in 1979-80, helping Kalamazoo to back-to-back Turner Cups.
Oh, and the connection isn’t confined to the ice. The Michigan State-to-Kalamazoo pipeline started with one of my predecessors, Terry Ficorelli. The former Voice of the K-Wings was a student at MSU before jump-starting his career with 11 memorable seasons in Kalamazoo, including the two championships.
Who will be next in the long line of Spartans alums? I don’t know. Maybe we can get the kid who plays Sparty to apply to be the next Slappy.
Bird’s-Eye View is a Kalamazoo Wings blog, written by the team’s Director of Public Relations/Broadcaster John Peterson twice weekly. The thoughts, opinions and behind-the-scenes stories are that of the writer alone and not a reflection of the organization as a whole. Fans are welcome to submit questions and ideas for future blog posts to email@example.com. Enjoy!