Size. Strength. Speed. School. The four horsemen of college hockey.
And for many incoming freshmen, these elements create turbulence in the transition from junior level hockey to the NCAA level.
In a high-intensity environment where every game counts, freshmen Wolverines must learn quickly. Arriving on campus in September and kicking off the season on Oct. 6 leaves little time for hiccups in the transition process.
Michigan’s roster features five freshmen: Cam York, Eric Ciccolini, Johnny Beecher, Keaton Pehrson and Nick Granowicz.
Granowicz’s path to playing for the Wolverines was different than that of teammates like Beecher and York. Whereas they spent time with the USNTDP he spent three seasons playing junior hockey, though not unusual to the world of hockey.
After graduating high school, he began his junior career in Topeka, Kan. After one-and-a-half seasons, he moved on to Cedar Rapids, Iowa then a few months later to Merritt, British Columbia with the Merritt Centennials in the BCHL. After three years, Granowicz was NCAA bound.
“For me it’s a big difference,” Granowicz said. “In juniors, we practice for about an hour (and) twenty. Maybe have a workout that day, but not for more than an hour and the rest of the day was ours to kind of hang out and do whatever.”
When freshmen step off the ice, the pressure doesn’t cease. They have to learn how to balance their obligations to the team and in the classroom. Most players in junior leagues don’t take classes, which creates excess free time. During the college season, free time is a luxury most players don’t get to indulge in. There’s class. Then after class there’s practice. Some days, there’s weight training. Some days, they dedicate time to watching film. And then, there’s homework.
“It’s a lot of time management,” Granowicz said. “So it’s like non-stop till 8, 9 o’clock at night. I think it’s good to be organized and kind of focus with everything you have coming up in the day ahead of you, and you kinda gotta plan out your times. You don’t get really much of a break, and you’re always going, going, going.”
An increase in practice time isn’t the only adjustment in Granowicz’s path, because even as a 21-year-old freshman, he faces a size disadvantage. Because of players coming in from juniors and being older than traditional freshmen, he’ll come face-to-face with players as old as 24. And with age and size comes strength.
“I haven’t experienced a college game yet,” Granowicz said. “But I know that guys on our team, they’re coming in around 200 pounds, even a little bit over, and I’m weighing in about 175. I know it’s more physical and harder. That’s why it’s the next level.”
Size is just one difference in competition between the junior level and NCAA. Speed is a huge factor. Play is faster. The intensity is higher. Players skate in practice with the intention of mirroring game conditions.
Players are given some help with the transition though. Michigan coach Mel Pearson and the coaching staff try their best to help ease guys coming from juniors into the rhythm of college hockey. He counts on senior players like captain Will Lockwood, Jake Slaker and Michael Pastujov to take freshmen under their wings and give them guidance.
Their advice isn’t exclusive to balancing classes and training, it carries over onto the ice during games. In the lineup, Pearson pairs the new players with more seasoned ones to ease the burden on their shoulders.
“(The freshman) just have to fit in,” Pearson said. “They just have to come in and be what they are and play hard. We don’t try to put a lot of pressure on them. The thing I find is they put so much pressure on themselves. (They’re) competitive. They wanna do well, they wanna please.”