Photos by Michigan Photography
There were nights during the 2020-21 ice hockey season when head coach Mel Pearson walked into a near-silent Yost Ice Arena and wondered, “What are we doing here? What are we playing for?”
COVID-19 restrictions had emptied the rink of fans and, shockingly, eliminated U-M from the NCAA tournament last March, after players on the No. 8-ranked and No. 2-seeded team tested positive for the coronavirus.
But a lot can change over the course of several months. In July 2021, four U-M players were among the top five draft picks in the 2021 NHL Draft, including defenseman Owen Power, tapped No. 1 overall by the Buffalo Sabres (see sidebar).
“It’s a story that’s never happened before,” says sports broadcaster Jon Paul Morosi, an expert on the NHL. “In all the history of amateur hockey, in America, Canada, and Europe, there’s never been a team that’s produced four of the top five draft picks in a single draft.”
It was especially startling for a hockey program that’s respected but often overshadowed by Big Ten schools like Minnesota and Wisconsin, and East Coast powerhouses Boston College and the University of Massachusetts. Including all the players selected by NHL teams in past drafts, this year’s Wolverine roster has seven first-round draft picks and a total of 13 that have been drafted overall.
So what keeps them in Ann Arbor?
A big factor in the chemistry on this team, which can be spotted even in practice, held most weekdays at 3:30 p.m. in Yost. Players show up early to rocket down the ice and, after some warmups, divide into small teams for fast-paced scrimmages that mimic their games. They slap their sticks against the boards when someone scores or a goalie blocks a shot, exchanging high fives and shouting “Go Blue!” before breaking for the night.
This sense of community makes many players feel at home here, Morosi says. “Michigan is such a nexus of hockey. You’re close to Canada. You’re close to (NHL) professional development programs. If you’re from the Midwest, it’s an easy program to wrap your mind around.”
Players also revel in the atmosphere at Yost, where last season’s silence has been replaced by a more typical rowdy enthusiasm. The rink, decorated with championship banners at either end, vibrated with sound for Michigan’s Oct. 2 exhibition game against Bowling Green. The game marked the first time that fans had been in the stands since March 7, 2020—and the first time more than half the team had played in front of spectators. More than 5,000 people, close to Yost’s capacity, showed up even though the game didn’t count in the standings. The Children of Yost student section and the Michigan hockey band filled two sections and startled the players and even the head coach with their cheers, chants, and singing.
“It was awesome, man,” Pearson said after the game.
Senior Emily Solecki, who leads the section, says she immediately wanted to join after attending her first hockey game three years ago. “We really love supporting the guys on the team, and we love being here for them,” she said, as the band blared nearby.
“I was like, ‘Thank you,’” forward Brendan Brisson said of the crowd. He collected three goals in the exhibition game, which Michigan won 7-1. “Right away, the fans brought the energy. I can’t wait to have them buzzing all year.”
Team captain and senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg scored two other goals and commended his team after the game. “Being able to play with those guys is such a blessing,” Blankenburg says. “It’s really special for me to be the captain and the leader of this team.”
At practice, Blankenburg’s stature is readily apparent, chatting with his teammates, talking by the side of the rink with Pearson, and meeting a visitor whom Pearson brought over to him. “He genuinely cares about Michigan and wants what’s best for Michigan,” Blankenburg says of Pearson, who recruited him in his first year as head coach.
Pearson has devoted his professional life to coaching college hockey at two places: his alma mater, Michigan Tech, and U-M. At both, he spent long stints in assistant coaching jobs before getting the top position. He was in Ann Arbor for a total of 23 years under ice hockey’s iconic leader Red Berenson, for whom the Yost rink is now named and whose signature is splashed across either end of the ice.
With no sign that Berenson was ready to retire, however, Pearson left U-M in 2011 to return to Michigan Tech, where he was head coach for six years. When Berenson ultimately decided to wind things up in 2017, Pearson was the logical—and, many think, only—choice for the job, even though U-M could have easily nabbed a professional hockey name to lead its program.
Compared with the statesmanlike Berenson, Pearson is a lower-key presence, giving instructions to his players at practice, then moving off to watch them work. With a generous head of reddish hair and stocky build, Pearson is not above moving a goalie’s cage back into place after a break or collecting wayward pucks that sail over the glass.
He likes his team’s productivity. After the Bowling Green game, Michigan went on to score 13 goals in two games against Lake Superior State, giving up five. “We’re going to score goals. We’re goal scorers,” Pearson says. “But there are a lot of areas of the game we need to improve on.”
Sophomore Philippe Lapointe, whose father, Martin, played on two Stanley Cup teams for the Detroit Red Wings, says the season is a chance to prove Michigan’s ability. “We look at each game as a stepping stone to know what we want to accomplish at the end of the year,” says Lapointe, whose brother Guyot played club hockey while at U-M.
“There’s a sense of unfinished business,” Morosi says of this team. “They didn’t get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament last year. They want to do that. They want to see how far they can take this.”
Perhaps these talented players will see their own championship banner hanging in the rafters above Yost, before skating off to much bigger cities.
Micheline Maynard is a contributing columnist for the Washington Post. She was a Knight-Wallace Fellow in 1999-2000.
Hockey Makes History
Wolverines were four of the first five picks in the first round of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft on July 23. All four have returned to U-M for the 2021-22 season.
First Overall, Buffalo Sabres
No. 2 Overall, Seattle Kraken
No. 4 Overall, New Jersey Devils
No. 5 Overall, Columbus Blue Jackets