There was no jersey embroidered with the number 12 left to greet Dakota Raabe, the then-freshman forward. Bags filled with his equipment laid to the side. There were no helmet or pads hanging in the top-shelf bins.
If he looked, the only thing he’d see was his name plate and an empty locker under it. No skates dangling below on the bottom rack.
“We gave him a week off to make sure he did what he was supposed to do,” Michigan hockey coach Mel Pearson said, “and took the hockey away from him.”
At the time, it was an academic issue. He wasn’t living up to the team’s standards and expectations and broke the trust of the coaches when it pertained to classes.
So they sent him a message. Don’t live up to the team’s standards, and they’ll take away the thing every hockey player cares about: hockey.
But last weekend was a different case. It was no longer academic. It was an on-ice issue, and ultimately, an off-ice coaching decision. Earlier in the year, the Wolverines were allowed to bring the entirety of the roster, but now they can only bring 23 players, leaving six behind to sit at home and watch from afar. And it was up to the coaches to decide who those six would be.
Immediately after practice last Wednesday evening, the coaches gathered the players in a room, sat them down behind closed doors and explained the new Big Ten travel rules. But the players knew what was coming. They knew just 23 could go. They just didn’t know which six were going to be left behind. That meeting was to let them know.
Emil Orhvall. Shane Switzer. Jack Leavy. Adam Winborg. Jay Keranan. Dakota Raabe.
Upon learning he wasn’t chosen to go, Raabe was surprised — and disappointed. It was the first time the junior had been held out of the lineup since his freshman year.
But poor play and end results had forced Pearson and the coaching staff to make some sort of change to spark the team.
“You’re always in conflict,” Pearson said. “As a coach, you’d like to take everybody, but I think we have to get to a certain point where we have to make changes if things aren’t working, and you have to be ready to make those changes. That was a good change.”
This time, the message was just as transparent as it was Raabe’s freshman year. There was no need to empty a locker or throw aside his equipment. Instead, Michigan opted to fill that same seat on the bus with a different body, one who would help bring the impact it so desperately sought.
The end result was a weekend sweep against No. 14 Notre Dame.
“It’s tough,” Raabe said. “Biggest thing is just seeing the team success.
“Obviously, you want to be a part of it. You want to be there but you can’t, can’t pout about it. That’s the most important thing is we got those two wins, we got those six points and helped us in the standings. And that’s all you can ask for really.”
He watched the wins on television with the remaining five teammates left behind. He cheered when Michigan scored and celebrated when his team won, hoping his wishes of good luck helped them succeed.
When the games ended, so did his time off. Pearson had left him and five others behind, but he also left behind a clear template of what they need to do to have more opportunities. So the weekend’s games weren’t the only thing they spent time watching. Pearson had given Raabe a list and video of things he needed to improve on.
“It’s not all just offense, even though he’s got one goal,” Pearson said. “Production is down. … So we just felt it, he wasn’t doing a lot of things in practice and we kept playing him because of, you know, he adds some speed.
“Dakota’s been told, you know, things you got to work harder, pay more attention to defensive detail because he’s not scoring a lot. Then use the speed more, like he’s might be the fastest guy on our team, but we don’t see that enough.”
That was the caveat. He was fast, but that was it. His utility on the penalty kill and ability to put pressure on the opposing puck handler was valuable but he was, more or less, a black hole on offense, and at times, defense.
Raabe had trouble finishing his chances. He took egregious and unnecessary penalties. He would make turnovers in the defensive zone that frustrated Pearson to no end. And so Pearson gave him a message and took hockey away from him.
“You could tell players things, but one thing that they really hold dear is the ice time,” Pearson said. “You can tell them this or that, but when you take that opportunity or that ice time away from them, then it hits home a little bit more.
“That’s the ultimate hammer is the ice time.”
In the past, the Wolverines have sat captains. They’ve sat hard workers and hustle players. The reason being the same: They weren’t playing to their potential or standard of play.
So for Raabe, it was no different. Seven points in 20 games, while being a wild card on defense, was not going to cut it. But he understood the message and came into the new week of practice undeterred — his mind set on making the lineup once again.