The offseason for the Michigan hockey team has been rife with high expectations. The summer has seen countless headlines surrounding a new head coach, a six-senior class determined to rebound from last year’s disappointment and promising freshmen looking to become breakout stars.
This excitement will be on full display Saturday when the doors of Yost Ice Arena open to mark the beginning of hockey season in Ann Arbor once again. The Wolverines will hit the ice this weekend and kick off their 2017-18 campaign with an exhibition matchup against Western Ontario.
Michigan’s first game since last spring will also be the first time the team plays under a new head coach in 33 years after the legendary tenure of former coach Red Berenson.
Though just an exhibition before regular season play begins next weekend at St. Lawrence and Clarkson in upstate New York, new coach Mel Pearson doesn’t approach this game differently than other contests.
“This has to be a dress rehearsal for next weekend,” Pearson said. “That’s one of the things we’ll try and line up even this whole week, as if it’s another Big Ten week playing a Big Ten opponent, so everything we’re going to try to do is to prepare them.
“With a new coaching staff, there’s a lot of things that are going to be different in just what we do on game day, pre-game skate, all those things. So it’s for them to learn what we want, too.”
The veteran Wolverines share their coach’s mentality and are intent on instilling the idea of an unwavering, winning work ethic into the freshmen leading up to Saturday.
“It’s like any other game,” said senior defenseman Cutler Martin. “You’ve got to go in with the mindset that you’re going to win, you’re going to win every battle, every shift. You’ve got to go in and take care of business. So it’s not really like an, ‘All right, I’m going to go in and play a 50% job.’ It’s giving it your best effort and you’re coming away trying to score as many goals as possible and limit them to nothing.”
While the team goes through the same practice regimen it would do for a midseason game, there will also be a test-drive feel against the Mustangs. The coaching staff will experiment with different systems at game speed and assess the strengths of newcomers in that setting.
Preseason rules restrict coaches from being on the ice during practice for more than a half hour per day — amounting to a total of just two hours a week. This makes it difficult to implement new strategies and find time to fully teach and evaluate players.
But Pearson hopes Saturday’s game will show Michigan’s progress and areas for improvement since preseason practices began two weeks ago.
“First and foremost, it’ll be good just to see what our guys are capable of doing, where they’re at as far as their execution of different systems we’re trying to put in,” Pearson said. “Obviously, I’m new this year so it’s sort of a different look, so it’ll be important to see how far they’ve come in some of the things we’re trying to teach.
“We just want to see some excitement, some energy and some hustle out there more than anything, and then the execution of the things we’re trying to do.”
Added Martin: “I think that we’ll also learn a little bit about our team. We have some new guys and we’ll see what they can do. It’s their first opportunity to show us — to show the returners and show the coaches — what they’re made of and what they’re like in real, game-like competition. It’ll be a good learning experience to see how it’ll go.”
And the freshmen are primed to show everyone their talents from the moment the puck drops.
The highly-touted incoming class is led by forward Josh Norris, a 2017 first-round NHL draft pick, and defenseman Quinn Hughes, a likely 2018 first-round pick. Forward Dakota Raabe has also impressed the coaches the past few weeks.
In some ways, Pearson believes the freshmen will have it easier than the upperclassmen because they haven’t played under the previous system at Michigan. This advantage, combined with the potential they have displayed in practice, gives him the belief his new skaters will have an immediate impact come game time.
“We like the freshmen,” Pearson said. “They’ve shown that they’re going to compete and push guys for jobs and ice time.”
On a personal level, Pearson is both eager and honored to be the man in charge, returning to Michigan after 23 years under Berenson as both an assistant and associate head coach — and most recently six years as the head coach at Michigan Tech. Despite the excitement, it’s first things first for the Flin Flon, Manitoba native as the team makes its way from the dressing room to the rink.
“I just hope I go to the right bench,” Pearson laughed. “The first few times I came in here when I was at Michigan Tech as the visiting coach, it was really strange coming on the visitor’s bench and now I guess it’s come full circle. I get to go to the bench as the head coach.”
As fans file into Yost, freshmen and returners alike lace up their skates, and Pearson heads to the home bench, Saturday will be the first look at the new team in a new era.