BY JAMES V. DOWD
Daily Sports Editor
Published June 19, 2005
Come October at Yost Ice Arena, you might have to look twice to make sure you’re cheering for the right team. The graduation of 10 seniors from the defending CCHA champions means there’s going to be a lot of new faces wearing the Maize and Blue out on the ice and hanging around the Michigan locker room.
Talent-wise, these newcomers are capable of stepping in to regular roles in the Wolverine lineup. The class includes Jack Johnson — projected as a No. 2 overall pick in the NHL Draft, which will occur soon after the collective bargaining agreement is resolved — his fellow U.S. national team member Mark Mitera and the highly touted Canadian Junior Hockey star Andrew Cogliano. Despite the skill level of these newcomers, Michigan’s coaches will still look to their veteran leadership to help ease the rookies’ transition into college hockey.
Instead of naming a captain and a pair of alternates, the Wolverines’ coaching staff elected three seniors — goaltender Al Montoya, forward Jeff Tambellini and center Andrew Ebbett — as tri-captains for the upcoming season.
“We think with having a big freshman class it will help having three C’s rather than a C and 2 A’s,” assistant coach Billy Powers said. “Our freshman can look up and, instead of seeing one guy, thinking, ‘(departing captain Eric) Nystrom’s our captain’, now they’ve got three guys that they can look up to.”
After backstopping Michigan’s run to the CCHA’s regular season and tournament titles last season, Montoya is confident that the tri-captains can help maintain Michigan’s excellence on the ice despite all the new faces.
“Obviously when you come to Michigan, the number one thing is to play in championships and to be a great team,” Montoya said. “This year is no different. We have lost a few good players, but this year we’re getting a couple of great players.”
Added Tambellini: “Freshmen at Michigan have never been the problem for the last three or four years.”
Montoya has a unique perspective from his position in Michigan’s goal crease, and he hopes to use his viewpoint to catch and fix freshman mistakes.
“I’m going to have a lot of new faces in front of me,” Montoya said. “I have to take it upon myself to help them because I do see the whole ice. I see everything that happens in front of me. So anything that I can give to those guys that I’ve experienced over the past few years will help.”
After entering the Michigan program as highly touted Junior Hockey alumni, Montoya and Tambellini have managed to live up to their resumes, marking themselves as Michigan’s go-to players.
“Both Tambellini and Al, they just had immediate respect since the day they walked in here because of what they came in here with,” Powers said. “And they’ve lived up to every expectation of them as hockey players. So I think, especially for the young kids, without even spending five minutes with Jeff or Al, (the freshmen) are going to look up to them.”
Ebbett’s contributions, on the other hand, have gone relatively unnoticed by the public despite his propensity for winning faceoffs and his place as one of Michigan’s top-four point scorers.
“I compare Ebbett to Nystrom and (departing defenseman Brandon) Rogers,” Powers said. “He’s got the pulse of the whole team. He’s more of the guy that hasn’t gotten the accolades. Like Rogers, he’s sort of flown under the radar as a player and as a student athlete here at Michigan. You have to be on the inside to see what Andrew Ebbett does.”
According to Powers, Ebbett emerged as one of the team’s hardest workers after the coaching staff benched him for one weekend during the past season, at a point they believed that he had been consistently underachieving. Ebbett’s work ethic has not gone unnoticed among his teammates either, who acknowledge him as someone who doesn’t take anything for granted.
“Ebbett is the one that performs at the same level every game and practice,” said junior T.J. Hensick. “His work ethic is contagious, whether it’s a practice, a game or schoolwork.”
Sophomore Kevin Porter also recognized the value of the tri-captains’ efforts to improve the squad.
“Tambellini and Ebbett are some of the fastest (runners) on the team,” Porter said. “When we’re out running, I’ve seen them finish and then go back with the back of the group to push them to finish harder.”
Montoya’s actions have also demonstrated his dedication to the team. After being selected by the New York Rangers with the sixth overall pick in the 2004 NHL Draft, Montoya received a great deal of national attention. There were questions as to whether he would stay in Ann Arbor or head to a Rangers’ minor-league affiliate.
“I think (his return) really does speak volumes about his commitment to Michigan and to being a student-athlete and getting his degree,” Powers said. “He handled things amazingly well for a kid who’s gone through what he went through. On the inside, there wouldn’t be a person associated with our program that would think that Al is a separate entity to the team. He’s a popular teammate and is always there for his teammates.”
In the dressing room, Hensick notices the same sentiments. Despite Montoya’s national visibility, Hensick contends that he’s just one of the guys.
“(Montoya) is in a different boat than the rest of us,” Hensick said. “But he takes it well. He’s our top player so we look to him in tough spots. With his high draft pick, there’s a lot of attention that comes along with that but he just puts it aside.”
Despite their different backgrounds and experiences, Powers is certain that the tri-captains are exactly the formula necessary for the Wolverines to be successful with so many newcomers.
“It’s a bit of everything that makes these guys special,” Powers said. “That’s usually what separates your captains. They’re not just prominent players in your lineup every night. They’re good students, and they take school seriously. As far as their social calendars, they’re always doing the right thing — school and hockey always come first.”