The Michigan hockey team has learned to take nothing for granted.
Six months ago, on the eve of the beginning of NCAA tournament play in Fargo, N.D., its season abruptly ended due to COVID-19 concerns within the program. The cancelation was a devastating blow for the Wolverines, who had a promising season and overcame multiple pandemic-related pauses to make it to that point.
Eyeing the start to what is expected to be its first full season in over two years, Michigan isn’t looking back. The team is controlling what it can control, starting with practice.
“The practices that we’ve had have been very competitive,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “Very high paced, very high spirited, right off the get go. This (is my) 40th year now at the Division 1 level coaching … and I can say that this year, it’s been as competitive on the ice as any of them.”
For a team loaded with NHL talent — including five 2021 first round picks — but lacking postseason experience, intense practices are vital to preparing the team for the demands of the season ahead. Given that the previous two NCAA tournaments were canceled due to COVID-19 and the Wolverines failed to qualify in 2019, a vast majority of Michigan’s roster has never partaken in NCAA tournament action.
Moreover, the Wolverines’ young core — featuring sophomore defenseman Owen Power, sophomore forward Matty Beniers, freshman defenseman Luke Hughes and sophomore forward Kent Johnson — have yet to play a college game in front of fans.
To compensate, Michigan has relied on its leadership to set the tone throughout the preseason.
“You have so many guys who just want to get better every day,” senior defenseman and captain Nick Blankenburg said. “That’s huge just coming into practice because you see how hard guys are working and how hard guys are trying to earn spots on the roster and you love to see it every day.”
With such a deep roster, Pearson will have to make difficult decisions each game as to who to dress. Players further in the depth chart are hyperaware of that and are spurring improvement amongst the star-studded first lines in the process.
“I think tensions might get a little high sometimes,” Blankenburg said. “Just because guys are so competitive, but that’s a good problem to have.”
Seemingly secure roster positions, such as the goalie position, remain a daily competition at practice and are exasperated by the heightened competitive nature. Although sophomore Erik Portillo is the expected starter, sophomore Noah West and senior Jack Leavy are both capable players vying for playing time.
Michigan will battle Bowling Green on Saturday in an exhibition, with the regular season beginning the following weekend in a series versus Lake Superior State. The Wolverines look to balance intense practice sessions with tactful management of their bodies as the first full season nears for many members of the roster.
“Our biggest concern right now is to just make sure we stay focused on the task at hand, and control all we can control,” Pearson said.
At least for the immediate future, the task at hand for Michigan is practice. As preparations wrap-up for the Wolverines, their added edge leads the way.
“I’ve seen it the last few weeks,” Beniers said. “We’ve been going hard. … We were going off the ice one day and some of the guys were like, ‘I think our practices are harder than some of the games we play,’ which is kind of just a testament to how it’s been going so far.”