At the University of Michigan, nearly every freshman lives in a dorm — including athletes.
Dorms are everyone’s first introduction to college life. Even for athletes, who already have a community in their team, living in a dorm gives freshmen the opportunity to meet their peers and, for most, to adjust to living on their own for the first time.
But for the freshmen on this year’s Michigan hockey team, that experience was short-lived.
When a COVID-19 cluster was identified on Sept. 17 on the floor that many players were living on in South Quad, they made the decision to move out as quickly as possible.
“That night they were out of there and they were scared,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “You think you got these guys these big, tough athletes, but they were really scared about it, and rightfully so. They want to make sure that (they) not only take care of themselves but the people around them.
“(If) one of them gets infected, you come down to the rink, and we’re in such close quarters down here as much as we try to wear a mask and stay apart, you’re bringing it in here.”
The freshmen were taken in by upperclassmen living off campus, where they slept on couches and floors until they could find off-campus housing. They haven’t returned to their dorms since the outbreak.
“It’s kind of cool to be in the dorms for the college experience,” freshman forward Kent Johnson said. “But I think right now, definitely playing is way above the college experience for us. We just wanted to play.”
Moving out of the dorms was just one hiccup in a freshman year like no other. The start of college is often labeled as the introduction to freedom, but because of the ongoing pandemic, the freshmen don’t have much. In order to ensure safety, they have to diligently keep their distance from other students, spending most of their time only around teammates.
“We have to be really smart about who we’re hanging out around,” freshman defenseman Owen Power said. “I think just kind of keeping a small group is important for us to kind of keep testing negative.”
On top of the hectic events off the ice, the freshmen also have to adjust to the new normal on it in order to acclimate to the college game. College hockey is faster than junior leagues, and players range from 17-24 in age. The newcomers can often get out-muscled by bigger, stronger upperclassmen.
“Everything’s faster, the guys are stronger,” Johnson said. “I’m just gonna need to think really fast and just continue to use my assets like my IQ and my skill, just at a faster pace and with stronger guys.”
Added Power: “I’m going to have to learn new ways to defend better and use my stick a lot better.”
Since the Wolverines were only allowed to have 10 players on the ice for nearly the first month of practices, developing these skills was difficult. Even Pearson had a tough time determining how to integrate the freshmen into the team and the style of college hockey.
“I’m a touchy, feely, gotta see you, gotta be around you, the in-person type deal. I’m not a great Zoom guy,” Pearson said. “It’s new for me. I like to be out there and see somebody and their body language and how they react to different things.”
While the less-than-ideal practice format could have harmed the formation of chemistry between the freshmen and upperclassmen, both Pearson and Johnson believe the opposite is true. If anything, everything the freshmen have had to go through so far this year has only brought them closer to the rest of the team.
“I’ve been doing this 38 years, you can tell if you have a group that’s tight and cares about each other,” Pearson said. “We see it in a lot of little things, how they carry themselves every day in practice, so I can’t wait.”
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