When Tom Anastos was announced last spring as the new head coach at Michigan State, observers around the college hockey world did a double-take.

It's not that Anastos wasn't a recognizable name in the college hockey world; far from it. As the commissioner of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association for 13 years, Anastos had been a leading figure in the sport, regularly appearing on The Hockey News' annual list of the most influential people in hockey. As a coach, however, Anastos' credentials were much less obvious, as was his potential influence on a Spartan program that had hit tough times following its 2007 NCAA championship.

"I was kind of shocked," said senior defenseman Brock Shelgren. "We'd heard of all these other names being mentioned for the job, and he wasn't one of those top names everyone was talking about. It was something of a shocker for a lot of people."

While the Spartan locker room certainly wasn't immune to the shock, concerns started to fade when Anastos arrived and officially took the reins of his team.

"With any change," junior forward Torey Krug said, "I think there's a period of anxiety and a period of nervousness, but that period was very short-lived when Coach Anastos was announced as coach. He won us over the first day when he told us that we were his guys, and he wasn't go to wait for his recruits to become a winning team. He won us over that first day that he stepped in the locker room, and it's been great ever since."

Indeed, the start of Anastos' tenure as Michigan State head coach has been as strong as anyone could have expected, perhaps even stronger. The Spartans finished play in January with a record of 13-11-4. After former coach Rick Comley's tenure ended unceremoniously last year with a 15-19-4 record and a loss to Alaska in the first round of the CCHA tournament, the Spartans have clearly turned over a new leaf under their new coach.

"It's been everything that I hoped it would," Anastos said of his first year behind the bench, "and maybe a little bit more. I've enjoyed the work. I've enjoyed the challenges I've been presented with, not just the hockey, but being inside the program and helping it evolve into what we expect it to be."

Exactly what Michigan State will be under Anastos and his staff is yet to be seen, but one thing that's clear on the inside is that the Spartans have evolved into a much closer-knit unit than they were in the past.

"We're closer as a team," Shelgren said. "I can relate to any of the guys a little bit better than in years past. In past years, there's always been that class difference, where this year, he came in and said there's no separation of classes. Guys have really bonded together, and it's just more of a family and team environment."

Tom Anastos' playing days

To some degree, that's to be expected. After all, Anastos himself has been part of the Michigan State family for some time, ever since he played under the legendary Ron Mason in the early 80s. Those Spartan credentials definitely make a big difference to the players under his charge.

"I think it's one of the biggest things that we looked for in searching for a new coach," Krug said. "We wanted to find a Spartan. Coach Anastos knows the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry. He knows how important that is. He knows what it's like to go into Ferris State's building. He knows what it's like to play there. It's big for us to have a person leading our team who understands the program, understands the history, and has played in our skates before."

That respect has come through in the way the Spartans have embraced their new coach, taking an accepting stance that has proven a pleasant surprise.

"I anticipated that with change would come lots of pain," Anastos said, "as it relates to trying to get the players to embrace change, and that hasn't been the case at all. They've been just great. They've really embraced the changes. They've tried to do everything that they've been asked to do. They've really made a huge commitment to doing all the things that we're asking them to do. I've had no pushback at all, which I find, in an environment of change, to be not typical."

By the same token, the Spartans have been impressed by their coach and the ease with which he's shifted roles. From practice to games to travel, there's been no aspect of coaching life in which the Spartans have seen their coach uncomfortable in his new position.

"That's kind of a surprising part, a little bit," Krug said. "He's so fluent, and he stepped right in, and he seems so comfortable in the position already. He's been great."

For his part, Anastos generally doesn't miss the commissioner's office, although having the opportunity to influence the game on a national level was certainly something he enjoyed.

"I always enjoyed the business of working with the other commissioners," Anastos said. "I thought that we were able to accomplish a lot working together. I enjoyed those relationships, beyond the personal. I thought we worked well together to pursue the agenda of college hockey. I guess if there was anything in particular that I miss, it's the day-to-day relationship with the other commissioners, for sure."

For now, though, Anastos is enjoying the day-to-day relationship with his Spartans, and thus far, they're working well together to pursue the agenda of Michigan State hockey.