BY NICOLE AUERBACH
Daily Sports Editor
Published March 24, 2009
On the ice, he’s ferocious. With a 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame, he’s a dominant physical presence on the blueline, a player who loves to deliver crowd-pleasing hits on opponents. His intensity often sends him to the penalty box at least once a game.
In the quiet rooms of C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, he’s the first to talk to patients, the one who gently asks them what they’re interested in and puts a smile on their faces. He grabs clipboards to organize volunteers and steers teammates, who are eager to meet new children, around the hospital to visiting rooms.
Meet the two sides of sophomore defenseman Tristin Llewellyn.
The Tough Guy
Beyond delivering hits that echo off the walls of Yost Ice Arena, Llewellyn is also known for his penalty minutes.
Against Nebraska-Omaha on Feb. 13-14, Llewellyn was a constant fixture in the penalty box. He accumulated 18 penalty minutes on the weekend, including a 10-minute misconduct.
The Wolverines are the nation’s third-most penalized team, and Llewellyn leads them with 90 minutes in the box — the next-highest amount on the team is 20 minutes fewer.
Some of Llewellyn's minutes came from lazy penalties in the beginning of the season, Michigan assistant coach Billy Powers said. But now, Llewellyn limits inopportune penalties and those caused simply by poor footwork.
“He’s not taking penalties where he’s put himself in a vulnerable position and his only reaction would be to take a penalty,” Powers said. “He’s playing better positionally, which is allowing him to find those strong, solid hits when you don’t have to take penalties.”
Llewellyn struggled with his confidence and his ability to keep up with the faster pace of collegiate competition during his freshman year. After an offseason spent focusing on agility and skating techniques, Llewellyn has shown slow and steady on-ice maturation — as well as increasing self-confidence — throughout this season.
“He was recruited as a guy that was very trustworthy, a defensive defenseman who brought that physical element to the table,” Powers said. “Now that he’s adapted better to the pace, and he’s a lot more confident in the speed of the game, now you’re starting to see the physical Tristin come out a little more.
“A year ago, where he had to go looking for hits — this year, they’re coming to him a little bit better. He’s reading plays better.”
Llewellyn’s improved skating and positioning have played important roles in his strong sophomore season. He’s improved his plus-minus rating by two points (currently plus-11), tallied 24 blocked shots on the year and has allowed just three even-strength goals since January.
Llewellyn isn’t the kind of guy who hesitates to stick up for a teammate or avoid a fight, either, a habit that has led to some time in the penalty box. But that tough attitude helps make him a more menacing physical presence on the blueline.
“Hockey is business,” Llewellyn’s father, David, said. “He doesn’t like people messing with his family, which would be his team. That’s probably why he tries to stick up for his teammates.
“He plays a very aggressive style of hockey. Part of that probably comes from when he was younger playing Juniors, he had to do that to stay alive.”
Underneath the jersey and hockey pads, though, Llewellyn is seemingly a different person. When he’s not with his “family,” he’s often at the hospital visiting sick children, trying to put them at ease with their surroundings.
The Nice Guy
Llewellyn quickly realized Alyssa was shy. After a few minutes in her hospital room last Thursday night, he noticed that the thin, blonde nine-year-old had clammed up since he entered the room, seemingly intimidated by a new visitor’s presence.
He quickly crossed the room to stand next to Alyssa’s bed.
“What’s the name of your dog?” he asked softly, pointing at the giant stuffed animal on her lap.
His question immediately engaged Alyssa, and after a few minutes of conversation between the two, she was grinning ear-to-ear.
“There are athletes that go in there and instantly know what to say and make not only the kids but the families more comfortable that they’re here,” said Ed Boullion, volunteer supervisor for the “From the Heart” program.
“Tristin’s one of them. We have those naturals that come up here and are doing it because they want to do it. They get as much out of it as the families. He’ll always call me or ask me questions to follow up on what’s going on.”
Llewellyn is one of the most common visitors on Thursday nights, the time designated for Michigan student-athletes in “From the Heart,” a program that brings athletes to the hospital to cheer up sick children.
Llewellyn began making regular hospital visits six years ago. But the first patient he visited hit closer to home than the others.
In 2003, while playing for the Honeybaked hockey program with current Michigan teammates Aaron Palushaj and Matt Rust, Llewellyn fired a slap shot that flew into the stands during one game. The puck hit Llewellyn’s younger brother, Darby, in the head, fracturing his skull and forcing him to spend nearly half a week at C.S. Mott’s. Llewellyn visited his brother each day, and he tried hard to convince the nurses to let him bring in a Nintendo for Darby to play with — to no avail.
“He treated me a lot nicer than when he’s just a normal brother,” said Darby, now 12.
Spending three days in the hospital gave Llewellyn a sense of familiarity, and now he directs other athletes around floors to different rooms with little difficulty. His attraction to C.S. Mott’s began with the personal connection he felt during Darby’s recovery.
But the constant trips to the hospital aren’t the first thing that pops into his mind when he thinks of the accident.
“It was even more annoying, because he was six, so I was 13,” Llewellyn said. “You always wrestle with your brother, right? For six months, no contact. He was sitting there poking every button I had.”
The Wolverines’ final game of the season at Yost Ice Arena on March 14 was special for more than just the players.
Sitting in wheelchairs behind the glass near the Michigan bench, two teenage boys enjoyed the hockey game, a special vacation from the hospital.
Derek and Kyle are two patients at C.S. Mott’s whom Llewellyn has been visiting frequently since Jan. 19.
“He’s a nice guy, really personable,” Derek said, adding that he enjoyed watching the game and meeting the players.
Llewellyn, senior Travis Turnbull, freshman Robbie Czarnik and freshman Luke Glendening, who have also met the boys at the hospital, spoke excitedly of the two boys’ visit in the week leading up to the game. They said they couldn’t wait to give them a tour of their locker room after the contest.
Following the Wolverines’ 6-1 win, Llewellyn and the boys all left the locker room grinning.
“(Llewellyn) loves to do things like that,” David said. “If he believes he can put a smile on a kid’s face, he’ll do it.”
It was a stark contrast from a half hour earlier when Llewellyn was skating hard and fighting for pucks during the game against Western Michigan.
But even after watching him slam players into boards and spend time in the penalty box, those who spend time around Llewellyn aren’t at all shocked by his off-ice persona.
“No, it doesn’t surprise me,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “He’s an aggressive player but he’s a good person, a good kid. He’s got a big heart. I think he’s another humble kid. He didn’t have everything handed to him. He’s worked his way up. I think he’d be a good example of what we’d expect from all our players.”
Powers reiterated Berenson’s point with an explanation of Llewellyn’s recruiting.
Because Llewellyn was the first commitment in his class and lives in Ann Arbor, Powers and the rest of the coaching staff got to know him better than most recruits. And one of Llewellyn’s biggest selling points was his relationship with Darby.
Llewellyn often helped out at his brother’s hockey practices — a trend that still continues. Llewellyn has also coached hockey camps that his younger brother has attended.
“We knew that he got on the ice and helped that team at practice,” Powers said. “When you see an older kid taking his younger brother under his wing and stuff, things like that really stick out. They really show character and show that he’s really got a good heart.
“You don’t find a lot of teenage kids spending time with a 10-year-old. … The fact that he’s willing to give his time (now) to those in need and be a role model, well, that’s not a surprise.”