A lot of people end up in graduate school without knowing particularly what they want to do when they grow up. Ron Mason was working on a doctorate in education at the University of Pittsburgh when he had a radical idea. What a life decision it turned out to be.
"I didn't really think much about coaching, even though I loved the game and thought I knew it pretty well," Mason said about his future after a decorated career as a player at St. Lawrence University. "When I was at graduate school, I was on my second year of working on my doctorate, I said, 'You know, this school is kind of wearing me out. Maybe I should try something different.' I told my wife I wanted to be a hockey coach, and she sort of just laughed because I had no real experience coaching."
Mason decided to give it a try and began applying for jobs. He had two offers, one at Merrimack College and the other at Lake Superior State University, which was about to be a fledgling program at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics level.
He accepted the job at Lake Superior State and began a coaching career that would span four decades. Mason became one of the most successful coaches in NCAA history, and Monday he will be enshrined in the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in a ceremony in Detroit.
"It is a heck of an honor," Mason said. "When you put a lot of time into the game over the years, you never think about when it is over with even when you're doing it what you're accomplishing. When something like this comes up after you spent all those years trying to make the game better and trying to win as many games as you can and trying to develop as many players as you possibly can, it is a great reward. It is one that very few people get and one that I'm very proud of."
Mason spent seven years at Lake Superior State, six years at Bowling Green University and 23 seasons at Michigan State University, finishing his career with the most victories in NCAA history at the time. He helped Lake Superior State become a quality program and make the jump to the NCAA Division I level.
He was a driving force behind the creation of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association and helped the CCHA earn its place in the NCAA with his teams at Bowling Green. He built and sustained a national powerhouse at Michigan State, winning an NCAA title in 1986 and reaching eight Frozen Fours during his 36-year career.
"He's a real good hockey man," said Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee, who Mason recruited to Bowling Green and coached for a season before going to Michigan State. "I thought he would have been a good NHL coach. We had those conversations. He was very smart, very intense, very competitive and very driven, and [he] knew how to handle people.
"He was a terrific motivator. He knew the game and had great instincts on the bench, but what was fun playing for him was he always seemed to be able to say the right things before the game or between periods. Whatever that team needed -- if we needed a jolt, he said the right things. He would come in before the game and was as fired up as anyone. It was a neat experience, because he didn't just do it once or twice, he was like that all the time."
Mason won two NAIA titles with Lake Superior State, but at the time there were only two major conferences at the NCAA level, the East Collegiate Athletic Conference and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. To gain access to the NCAA tournament, teams needed to be a member of one of those two conferences.
Along with a few other coaches, Mason spearheaded the effort to kick-start what would become the CCHA, and they changed the landscape of college hockey forever.
"That was a really neat thing. I was at Lake [Superior] State for seven years and we had no chance of ever getting in the NCAA tournament," Mason said. "There were a lot of teams that were good teams and some other places were starting new programs. One year at the NCAA tournament it was Bill Selman from St. Louis and Jack Vivian from Bowling Green and myself, and we sat down and said, 'What we should do is form some sort of a league so we can be more organized and get the right to play in the NCAA tournament.'
"It all happened at the NCAA tournament in Boston in 1972 and we were able to get a schedule together. It took a few more years before we got the NCAA interested in taking our champion in the NCAA tournament. It was a lot of battles, a lot of struggles. We had to gain the respect. As it turned, the CCHA has gone on to win multiple national championships with great teams."
Mason spent the first year of the CCHA with Lake Superior State before moving to Bowling Green, where he helped the Falcons become the first team from outside the ECAC and WCHA to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament.
In 1978, Bowling Green won the preliminary-round game and reached the Frozen Four. When the Falcons defeated the defending champion Wisconsin Badgers in the third-place game to give them two wins in three NCAA games against traditional powers, the CCHA had proven it deserved a spot at the big dance.
"We were legit," Mason said. "We had a lot of really good hockey players, and yet the only way to get the recognition is to get into the NCAA tournament and show everyone your program is legit. That helped the whole league at that time."
The following year Mason had a couple of freshmen on his team who would go on to become integral members of the management team for the Capitals. McPhee and Brian MacLellan, now an assistant general manager in Washington, helped Mason's team reach the NCAA tournament for a third straight season. The Falcons lost in the opening round to Minnesota and coach Herb Brooks, who was a few months away from his star turn as coach of the 1980 United States Olympic team.
"[Mason] knew the game so well. He liked a real physical style and a real defensive style of play," McPhee said. "His philosophy was if we get one, then you have to get two to beat us. We played that way. We didn't give teams much, but we were a high-scoring team. His practices were really competitive. It was a physical team. It wasn't a fun team to play against.
"We had a phenomenal team. I thought it was the best team in the country. We won our conference and then we played a one-game playoff to be the second team from the West [in the Frozen Four]. It was at Minnesota and they beat us. I really thought whoever won that game was going to win the NCAAs and Minnesota won it."
The following year Mason moved on to Michigan State and became the all-time winningest coach for the Spartans and eventually in NCAA history. He won a national title, but also reached the Frozen Four seven times and won 10 conference titles. He coached two Hobey Baker Award winners, Kip Miller in 1990 and his younger cousin, Ryan Miller, in 2001.
"I was there the last three years of his career," Ryan Miller said. "I had actually been around Ron when he coached my cousins at Michigan State. I was around to see that. What always struck me was his teams were prepared. He wasn't so hard you were frightened up but you definitely respected what he had to say. He was hard enough that you knew he expected the best out of you, and he expected you to be prepared and be professional. It was a great attitude for a group of college kids to come into.
"I'm really happy for him. I think he had a tremendous career. He's done a lot for a lot of people. The main thing as a coach is the teaching. He taught a lot of guys the right way to do things. A lot of us were able to play at a higher level of hockey because of the discipline he had. I think a lot of guys were probably better for it, even if they didn't move forward in hockey."
The final numbers are staggering. Mason won 924 NCAA games, now the second-most of all time (Jerry York, the man he preceded at Bowling Green, passed him while with Boston College in 2012). He won 635 at Michigan State before retiring in 2002 to become the school's athletic director.
The Spartans won another national title in 2007, making him the only person at an NCAA school to win as a coach and AD.
"He was an unbelievable coach," said Dallas Stars forward Shawn Horcoff, who was a Hobey Baker finalist for Mason. "From 18 to 21 years old, those were in my mind the most important years of my development and he was the guy that oversaw all of it. He brought me in and told me right away what it was going to take to play in the NHL and play at that level, and he said, 'If you are willing to do the hard work, I am going to spend the time with you and we are going to make it happen,' and I just owe him a ton."
His impact went far beyond the ice. Helping to form the CCHA led to expansion of the sport at the NCAA level, and eventually to the birth of the Big Ten conference this season where Michigan State now resides.
His former players have impacted the sport at all levels, and his coaching tree includes guys currently at the highest youth, NCAA and NHL levels.
"He was a big reason why I ended up going to Michigan State in the first place," Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. "I knew his track record at developing hockey players and I believed in him as a coach. He talked about rewiring my brain into being defense-first. I don't think that really happened when he left, but I ended up understanding what he meant when I turned pro and I learned to play defense and change my game.
"You look at the accomplishments he's had and what he's been able to do as a head coach at Michigan State and all the wins he has, I'm surprised it hasn't happened earlier."
Mason will enjoy his Hall of Fame induction ceremony Monday, but before that he's got a busy weekend ahead. He has two grandsons in college hockey. One, Tyler Walsh, is the director of hockey operations at Canisius University. The other is Travis Walsh, a sophomore defenseman for the Spartans. Mason will spend the weekend in East Lansing, Mich., before going to Detroit.
"I enjoy that more than anything else," Mason said of watching his grandson play. "I get up there and watch him as much as I possibly can. It is a pretty exciting time at Michigan State. The football team is 10-1 and the basketball team is No. 1 in the country. Going back is always a great time for me. Watching Travis is just fantastic."