When a team has just three seniors and ten freshmen, such as the No. 12 Michigan hockey team, each senior has to step up and take on a solid leadership role.
But that isn’t an issue for senior defenseman Nick Boka, who has been acting as a leader since he was a junior.
“I had comments last year, even as a junior, about him reaching out,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “I think he’s got a nice way about him with the players away from the rink, too, especially with the young guys. I think that’s important, to make them feel included.”
Boka downplays his role with the Wolverines’ freshmen, but it’s clear that helping out the younger players is something that’s important to him. His freshman year, the 2015-16 season, Michigan also had just three seniors on the team — forwards Justin Selman and Cristoval Nieves and goaltender Steve Racine.
The three made an impression on a young Boka, and he tries to follow their example today.
“I remember coming in as a freshman, we only had three seniors that year, and just how amazing those guys were to us and all the freshmen,” Boka said. “The way they played, they left it all out there and I think that, for me, is definitely something I try to do.”
Perhaps correlated with Boka’s leadership role is a newfound maturity on the ice. Controlling his emotions has always been an issue, but it’s something he’s started to take more seriously in the latter half of his career as a Wolverine.
After an incident in January, when he yelled a curse word so loudly that it reverberated inside Notre Dame’s Compton Family Ice Arena, Boka has appeared to have much better control over his mental game. He’s still an aggressive, emotional player, but it doesn’t go to extremes anymore.
“We need Nick on the ice,” Pearson said. “He’s more valuable to us on the ice than in the penalty box. … We told him, ‘Sometimes, it’s tougher to take a bad hit and not retaliate,’ and I think that’s what he’s done this year. He’s shown he can do that.”
Working on your mental toughness and emotional control isn’t easy, especially for a player like Boka. But with the help of famed motivational speaker and life coach Greg Harden — who has worked with players like Tom Brady — Boka is figuring out how to keep his emotions from affecting his play.
“I can’t thank (Harden) enough for what he’s done for me,” Boka said. “I continue to go see him probably every other week and just talk. Talk about life. He’s helped me a ton.”
And it seems that the work on his mental game is paying off. Boka has played some of his best hockey at Michigan since that game against the Fighting Irish in January.
The improvement that Pearson saw in the second half of last season has carried through the offseason and into the beginning of this season, with Boka out to one of the best starts of his career after notching two assists in three games.
Boka still prides himself on being a shutdown blueliner first and sees any offensive success he has as a bonus. His on-ice role has expanded this year, with his skating ability allowing him to earn playing time on the power play.
Pearson says he can play in any situation, but it seems that his biggest role expansion has come off the ice — not on it.
“I think (being one of three seniors) is a huge responsibility,” Boka said. “I think little things, giving guys rides or hanging out away from the rink, I think all that goes a long way. That’s something I took away from those three seniors my freshman year.”