Dakota Raabe walked into the Michigan hockey locker room last January to find his locker empty.

Then a freshman, Raabe had been dealing with some academic issues and the Wolverines decided to send a message to him.

“You have a responsibility here as a student-athlete,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson on Monday. “Our program, I can only speak for our program, but you go to class, you’re on time. You represent your family, your teammates, the program, the athletic department. There’s a responsibility there, and if you’re not doing it, you’re not entitled to play hockey. It’s a benefit.”

A year later, Raabe is one of the players Pearson frequently calls out — praising his growth and increased maturity over his time so far at Michigan. The sophomore now plays on a line that Pearson says he’d match up against any team’s top line.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Last season, while trying to find his way as a freshman, Raabe struggled to understand his role and do the little things he needed to do to be successful. 

“With him, it’s just, I think (telling him) that you are important to the team,” Pearson said. “Regardless of your role, how minimal or whatever it is might seem. Maybe that was part of him, doesn’t think he’s that important, ‘Because I’m not Josh Norris, I’m not Quinn Hughes, I’m not Cooper Marody.’

“You can get a tendency to think, ‘Well, they’re going to do it. I just have to show up and I’ll be fine.’ But that’s not the case.”

This year, Raabe has been a nearly constant presence in the lineup — he’s missed only one game all season. Along with that consistent playing time comes a deeper understanding of his role and the importance of his contributions to the team.

“He’s worked a lot harder, but that’s part of understanding how you have to do it each and every day,” Pearson said. “You just can’t do it once in a while, you just can’t be satisfied with being in the lineup. You have to do what you’re good at and try and bring it every day.”

As Raabe has grown on the ice, his role as a leader has developed off it. On a team with 10 freshmen, any player that wants to add leadership is welcomed.

And Raabe is largely trying to show the freshmen exactly what Pearson wanted him to learn last year.

“I’m just trying to show that each day, you have to bring it,” Raabe said. “Just from the situation I was in, it doesn’t matter what your role is or whatever as long as you just accept it, work hard at it, and then, when you’re given an opportunity, you take the chance.”

Raabe and his linemates, freshmen forwards Garrett Van Wyhe and Nolan Moyle, have played together in almost every game this year. As a sophomore playing with two freshmen, Raabe’s leadership is even more important with his linemates.

But it seems he is not the only leader on that line.  

“He’s playing with a guy like (Van Wyhe) that’s really helping him,” Pearson said. “Garrett’s a pretty mature kid for being a freshman. … They complement each other well, how they play. And Garrett’s a hard worker. That’s his M.O., work hard, so I think sometimes that rubs off or should rub off on your linemates and your teammates. I think it has.”

The hard work and commitment that Van Wyhe has helped instill in Raabe shows itself when the two play together on the penalty kill for the Wolverines.

Perhaps no example of this is more striking than when Raabe and Van Wyhe — along with junior defenseman Luke Martin — killed off two minutes of a five-on-three advantage for Ohio State two weekends ago.

Those two minutes showed Raabe’s ability and willingness to sacrifice his body to block a shot and make a play. And that willingness, especially in contrast to his freshman season, is exactly what Pearson wants to see from him.

“That second year, you’ve matured, you understand what it takes,” Pearson said. “And you’re just willing to do it. I think that’s it.

“He can skate, he can score, so he’s just got to believe in himself. But he’s been much better. We need him to be good going down the stretch. He’s taken big steps.”

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