ANN ARBOR, Mich. Mel Pearson, University of Michigan’s men’s hockey coach, pointed with his hand at a small box in his office. His voice trembled as he described his players’ hopes of winning the upcoming Frozen Four, college hockey’s leading event.
“I just want it to feel so bad for the players,” Pearson said. “They’ve been through so much and they’re such amazing kids.”
Pearson tried to explain that he has already cut out so many memories, but his voice disappeared and he broke down in tears. He got up, took a napkin from his desk, apologized, shook his head, and laughed. When asked what he had pointed out, Pearson opened a small wooden box filled with a dozen rings, all studded with the signature Michigan M. They included two who celebrated national championship teams in 1996 and 1998, when Pearson was his mentor’s assistant. , Red Berenson.
Like Pearson, Michigan hockey has enjoyed its share of glory. It has been to more Frozen Fours (26) and won more hockey championships (nine) than any other university. But six of these titles were won before 1960, and none have come for nearly a quarter of a century.
The current group of Wolverines, a flashy collection of sophisticated talents never before seen on one school list – with a backstory of disappointment and sacrifice – has yet to join the pantheon.
As Michigan enters the Frozen Four against the University of Denver in their national semifinals Thursday in Boston, the pressure is on Wolverines and their glamorous list. Minnesota and Minnesota State meet in the second semifinal, but none of the other three teams – in fact, no team in college hockey history – have a lineup like the one Pearson recruited.
Michigan boasts seven NHL selections in the first round, including an unprecedented four of the top-five picks from 2021. There are more top-five picks than Tampa Bay Lightning has on their roster, and Lightning won the last two Stanley Cups.
“It will probably never happen again,” first-year students said, the No. 4 selection of Devils. “And we all know we’ll never play together again, and we only have one chance at this. I would not say that there is pressure, but there is a lot of desire. And maybe a little bit of pressure. ”
That night in July, minutes before the Devils picked Hughes, Owen Power, a defender from Ontario, became Michigan’s first No. 1 overall when Buffalo picked him.
Matty Beniers, a smart playmaker from Massachusetts, was taken as No. 2 by the Seattle Kraken. Hughes, whose brother Jack was taken as No. 1 overall by the Devils in 2019 and leads the team in goal this season, was picked next time as No. 4, and the Columbus Blue Jackets took center Kent Johnson as No. 5. Even Alabama football never had such a top five (it came close, with three taken in the top five in the 1948 NFL draft).
When he saw the cases at home, Pearson swallowed. In less than an hour, virtually all of his power play was engulfed.
“It happened so fast,” Pearson said. “They interviewed Matty and saw bang going Luke Hughes off the board and then bang going Kent.”
Later in the first round, the Florida Panthers took Mackie Samoskevich with the 24th pick. These five joined Johnny Beecher and Brendan Brisson, who were taken in the first rounds in 2019 and 2020, to give Michigan an astonishing seven first-time players.
In college hockey, players can stay in school after being drafted and NHL teams retain their rights. All seven picks, plus six more drafters in the lower round, chose to return to Ann Arbor for one last chance to play together and one last shot at a national championship.
“It’s not easy to turn down an NHL contract once you’re drafted first, second, fifth,” said Nick Blankenburg, Wolverines’ senior captain. “High praise and respect to the guys who return.”
As a huge, sports-centric university in a Power Five conference, Michigan has many built-in advantages over smaller schools, including lavish facilities, economic power, and for players a history of developing players into commercially viable talent. Quinn Hughes, Luke and Jack’s older brother, played two years for Michigan and became No. 7 overall by the Vancouver Canucks in 2018.
Former Michigan players are scattered around the NHL, both on the ice and in the broadcast box. Billy Jaffe, the Boston Bruins analyst for NESN, played in Michigan in 1988, the year Pearson started as an assistant. He said it was unusual for high draft picks to spend more than a year at the college level.
“That they all come back says something about the program,” Jaffe said, “and maybe also something about what happened last year with Covid.”
This season’s origin story begins a year ago in Fargo, ND, as the Wolverines prepared to face Minnesota-Duluth in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That’s part of what made Pearson so emotional. When the players woke up from their nap before the match, they saw a text message from Pearson instructing them to immediately gather in a meeting room at the hotel. There were only three hours until the puck fell.
“When we saw our coach’s face, we knew what was going on,” Blankenburg said.
Two players were tested positive for coronavirus, and the NCAA disqualified Wolverines. Instead of playing that night, the gloomy group went to the arena and packed their equipment and returned to the hotel to wait for their plane home. Those who could stand it saw Bemidji State beat Wisconsin on television.
“It was devastating,” Beniers recalled. “It’s one thing when you lose and another thing when you do not even get a chance to play.”
Like the other top draftees, Beniers said he was already leaning toward returning to Michigan for his sophomore year because he enjoyed his freshman year so much, and the emptiness he felt after the endless final in 2021 made the decision much easier. During pre-draft meetings with NHL teams, including Kraken, Benier’s leaders said that if they expected him to join their clubs right away, they would have to fight his mother about it.
Christine Maglione Beniers, a Boston area attorney – who also appeared on “A Chorus Line” on Broadway – wanted her son to have the complete college experience. But the few matches Michigan played were staged in empty arenas, teaching was online, and social life on campus was limited.
There will always be time to skate against 33-year-old NHL bruises like Pat Maroon and Milan Lucic.
“I do not know what the great rush is to get to the next level when you have not even experienced this fully,” Maglione Beniers said in a telephone interview. “Ultimately, it was his decision. But that’s the last chance you have to be around and play with kids your own age.”
But Michigan, with 31 wins, nine losses and a draw, is far from perfect. It lost all four of its regular-season games against Notre Dame before beating the Irish in the conference tournament, and it nearly let go of a 4-0 lead away in the third period of its second-round NCAA tournament victory against Quinnipiac. But the Wolverines stuck to the program’s 26th Frozen Four, and 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.”
Power, a quiet, 6-foot-5 defender, is likely to play for the Sabers in Buffalo, about a 90-minute drive from his home in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. Returning to Michigan gave him one last chance to play in a 100-year-old ice rink with the band that pumped out the battle song, to live with teammates and share a dream with those whose early wish was simply to get an offer from a college.
“It’s special to be a part of it,” Blankenburg said. “I will look back in 20 years when I have a family, and just to be able to say I played with these guys and the things we went through, I will cherish it forever.”