ANN ARBOR, Mich. Mel Pearson, the men’s hockey coach at the University of Michigan, gestured to a small box in his office. His voice trembled as he described his players’ hopes of winning the Frozen Four, college hockey’s premier event.
“I want it so badly for the players,” Pearson said. “They’ve been through a lot and they’re such wonderful kids.”
Pearson was trying to explain that he had already chipped away a lot of memories, but his voice stopped and he burst into tears. He stood up, took a handkerchief from his desk, apologized, nodded and laughed. When asked what he was pointing at, Pearson opened a small wooden box filled with a dozen rings, all covered with the Michigan M signature. Among them were two who commemorated national championship teams in 1996 and 1998, when Pearson was his mentor’s assistant. , Red Berenson.
Like Pearson, Michigan hockey has had its fair share of victory. He attended more Frozen Four (26) and won more hockey championships (nine) than any other university. But six of these titles were won before 1960, and none came in nearly a quarter of a century.
The current band of the Wolverines, a gaudy ensemble of top talent never seen before on a college roster – with a history of disappointment and sacrifice – has yet to join the pantheon.
The pressure is on the Wolverines and their glamorous roster as Michigan enters the Frozen Four against the University of Denver in their national semifinals in Boston on Thursday. Minnesota and Minnesota State face each other in the other semifinals, but none of the other three teams—indeed, no team in college hockey history—has a roster like Pearson has.
Michigan has seven NHL first-round picks, including an unprecedented four of the top five picks in 2021. That’s more than Tampa Bay Lightning’s top five picks on their roster, and Lightning has won the last two Stanley Cups.
“It probably won’t happen again,” said the freshman Luke Hughes, the number 4 choice of demons. “We all know we’re never going to play together again and we have one shot at it. I don’t mean to say there is pressure, but there is a lot of desire. And maybe a little pressure.”
That night in July, minutes before the Devils picked Hughes, Owen Power, a defensive lineman from Ontario, became Michigan’s first #1 pick when Buffalo picked him.
Matty Beniers, a talented quarterback from Massachusetts, was picked at number 2 by the Seattle Kraken. Hughes, whose brother Jack was brought to No. 1 by the Devils in 2019 and lead in goals for the team this season, took 4th place with the Columbus Blue Jackets centering on 5th place Kent Johnson. football has never had a top five like this (closer to the top three in the 1948 NFL draft).
Pearson, watching what was happening in the house, swallowed. In less than an hour, almost the entire power play was swept away.
“It happened so fast,” Pearson said. They were interviewing Matty and then bang, Luke Hughes going off the board and then bang, here goes Kent.
Then in the first round, the Florida Panthers took Mackie Samoskevich with 24th place. Those five joined Johnny Beecher and Brendan Brisson, who were taken in the first rounds in 2019 and 2020, and made a staggering seven first-rounds to Michigan.
In college hockey, players can stay in school after being drafted, and NHL teams retain their rights. He chose to return to Ann Arbor for all seven picks, plus six lower-round picks, one last chance to play together, and one last chance at a national championship.
“It’s not easy to turn down an NHL contract when you’re picked first, second, fifth,” said Wolverines senior captain Nick Blankenburg. “I have a lot of praise and respect for the guys coming back.”
As a huge, sports-centric university located at a Power Five conference, Michigan has many built-in advantages over smaller schools, including generous facilities, financial strength, and a history of converting players into commercially viable talents. Quinn Hughes, Luke and Jack’s older brother, played two years for Michigan and was selected 7th overall by the Vancouver Canucks in 2018.
Former Michigan players feature around the NHL, both on the ice and in the broadcast booth. Billy Jaffe, Boston Bruins analyst for NESN, played in Michigan in 1988, when Pearson began as an assistant. He said it was unusual for high draft picks to spend more than a year at the college level.
“The fact that they all come back says something about the program,” Jaffe said, “and maybe something about what happened with Covid last year.”
This season’s starting story begins a year ago in Fargo, ND, as the Wolverines prepare to face Minnesota-Duluth in the first round of the NCAA tournament. It’s part of what makes Pearson so emotional. When the players woke up from their pre-game nap, they immediately saw a text message from Pearson telling them to assemble in a hotel boardroom. It was only three hours before the disc fell.
“When we saw our coach’s face, we understood what was going on,” Blankenburg said.
Two players tested positive for coronavirus and the NCAA disqualified the Wolverines. Instead of playing that night, the gloomy group went to the arena and packed their equipment and returned to the hotel to await their flight home. The nauseous watched on TV as Bemidji State beat Wisconsin.
“It was devastating,” Beniers recalled. “It’s one thing when you lose, it’s another thing when you don’t even get a chance to play.”
Like other top drafters, Beniers said he was already inclined to return to Michigan for his second year because he enjoyed his freshman year so much, and the emptiness he felt after that futile finale in 2021 made the decision much easier. In pre-draft meetings with NHL teams, including Kraken, Beniers told managers that if they expected him to join their club immediately, they would have to fight his mother for it.
Boston lawyer Christine Maglione Beniers, who starred in “A Chorus Line” on Broadway, wanted her son to have a full college experience. But the few games Michigan played were played in empty arenas, classes were online, and campus social life was curtailed.
There will always be time to skate against 33-year-old NHL cripples like Pat Maroon and Milan Lucic.
“I don’t know how much of a rush there is to take it to the next level before we’ve fully experienced it,” Maglione Beniers said in a phone interview. “In the end it was his decision. But this is your last chance to be around and play with kids your own age.”
But Michigan is far from perfect, with 31 wins, nine losses and one draw. He lost all four of his regular season games to Notre Dame before beating the Irishman in the conference tournament and nearly missed a 4-0 lead in the third period of his second-round NCAA tournament win. against Quinnipiac. But the Wolverines continued to reach the program’s 26th Frozen Four, this time with a team full of NHL talent.
“Last year ended with such a disappointment,” Power said. “We all wanted to come back and do something really big.”
A quiet, 6-foot-tall defender, Power will likely play for the Sabers in Buffalo, about 90 minutes from his home in Toronto’s Mississauga suburb. His return to Michigan gave him one last chance to perform on a 100-year-old track where the band spread the fight song, live with his teammates, and share a dream with those whose first wish was simply to get an offer. college.
“It’s special to be a part of it,” Blankenburg said. “When I have a family in 20 years, I’ll look back and be able to say I played with these guys and live what we went through forever.”