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The Michigan hockey coaching staff is always looking into a crystal ball, trying to predict the future. 

Recruiting is all about identifying a team’s needs and young players’ skills several years in advance, a skill that coach Mel Pearson and his team have become better at season after season. 

Pearson has long been regarded as a highly talented recruiter, and in his fourth year as head coach for the Wolverines — four years he’s used to foster connections with recruits — his freshman class is considered one of the best in the country.

Out of the 10 players, three — forwards Brendan Brisson and Thomas Bordeleau along with defenseman Jacob Truscott — were selected in this year’s NHL Draft, and three more — forwards Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson and defenseman Owen Power — are expected to be high picks next year.

In the hockey world, the names Johnson, Bordeleau, Beniers have been on the radar for years. Still, in some senses, Michigan was taking a guess on each one. There’s only so much you can learn from projections. 

“A lot can happen between you when you’re 14 years old and you’re 18 or 19 when you come to college,” Pearson said. “What I’ve learned is, you have to hold true to what you value in a player and not get caught up in all the noise that’s around.”

For the Wolverines, that means listening less to NHL Draft predictions and focusing more on what the team is missing. In the coaches’ offices, they keep whiteboards to map out each year: who’s likely going to be on the roster, what skillsets they’ll have and what deficiencies they anticipate. The depth charts look as far out as 2026. They aren’t always discussed, but they’re always there. 

Making a team blueprint years in advance is more difficult in hockey than in other sports because it’s uncertain how long recruits will stay with their college program. For most players on a team as elite as Michigan’s, the question isn’t whether they’ll get to the NHL but when. 

To the best of their ability, coaches try to predict when that time will come. 

“They could leave after one year,” assistant coach Kris Mayotte said. “They could stay all four years, so you never really know. You have an idea but you never really know exactly what it’s gonna look like year year.”

Mayotte calls it the “biggest challenge in hockey recruiting.” 

Even if you can accurately predict the team’s needs, it’s possibly even harder to project how a recruit will grow as a player over the course of four or five years. For that, the coaches look to the players’ work ethic and teamwork. 

“Some players get all mad and slap their stick and are bitching at the referee all the time,” Pearson said. “You can really find out what drives them and how they handle adversity.”

Added Mayotte: “Talent sets the floor, but who they are sets their ceiling. And that’s what we’re trying to figure out as much as anything.”

Mayotte recognizes that this freshman class has a lot of hype around it, but it will be those intangible factors — how they work together, how they push each other, their work ethic on and off the ice — that will really distinguish them when the season starts. 

Looking at the depth chart, the Wolverines anticipated they would be losing Jake Slaker and Will Lockwood — both huge for their offensive production — after last season, meaning that this freshman class would need to be able to score. The other focal points were finding fast and technically skilled players. Mayotte believes they’ve accomplished all three goals with their 10 freshmen. 

“Our depth is going to be a big asset for us this year,” Mayotte said. “We have really good hockey players, up and down our lineup.”

Once teams identify what they’re looking for, it comes down to who you know. 

“It doesn’t take an expert to walk in the rink most nights and tell you who the best player on the ice is,” Mayotte said. “A lot of people can figure that out. It’s ‘Well, who do I know that they know? Who do I know that they trust, that they rely on? How can I make that connection with them?’ ”

A central job of coaching is building a network. Each coach focuses on a specific region: Pearson has strong ties in Minnesota, Mayotte uses the connections he made throughout the Northeast in a previous coaching job and associate head coach Bill Muckalt covers his home region of western Canada. Between the three, they have the Wolverines’ key hotbeds covered. 

Recruiting happens 11 months out of the year, whether that means United States Hockey League or USA development camps over the summer or different junior league games during the fall, winter and spring. 

When the Wolverines’ have road games during the regular season, either Muckalt or Mayotte is usually out trying to find the next generation of Michigan players. When the Wolverines are playing at home, the coaches try to watch some recruits in the area before the game. 

The system works because the coaches build trust with people in their area. When, for example, Muckalt is recruiting a player in British Columbia, there are five or six people the player can reach out to that will speak to Muckalt’s character and Michigan’s program as a whole. 

But a system built on who you know naturally breeds exclusivity. Hockey has historically been a primarily white and affluent sport. In 2019, there were only three Black Division I hockey players. 

There are very few initiatives to increase diversity on the college level because there are few people of color who reach the junior level in the first place. 

“It’s an expensive sport at every single level, and I think that needs to change,” Mayotte said. “And then I think there just needs to be more inclusion. People have to feel welcome, and I honestly don’t know how that changes.

The sport itself is getting more expensive, and therefore more exclusive, by the year. Two decades ago, Mayotte grew up with hand-me-downs and didn’t have matching goalie equipment until he was 16. Now the expectation is that players get new equipment every year. 

“They all have strength coaches,” Mayotte said. “They all have goalie coaches. They all have skating coaches. I don’t know how. It’s insane — it’s not even just getting into the sport, but to keep up.

If Mayotte was playing today, he doesn’t think he’d make it to the college level. 

A player and their family have to be all in at such a young age, it’s not surprising that many of them have family connections to the NHL.

Brisson is the son of a prominent NHL agent. Freshman forward Philippe Lapointe’s dad, Martin, is a two-time Stanley Cup winner. Bordeleau’s dad, Sébastien, played in the NHL along with his grandfather, uncle and two great-uncles. As the game gets increasingly expensive and time-intensive, families that are already integrated into hockey culture are among the few with the means and desire to make the necessary investment into the sport. 

Even players who grew up steeped in hockey don’t always take the most conventional path. Beniers’ road to Michigan gives a perfect — yet also unconventional — look into the recruiting process, and why forming connections early is critical.

“Well, it started with him telling me, ‘No,’ ” Mayotte said. 

Mayotte had tried recruiting Beniers for three years when he was coaching at Providence College. In that process, he developed a strong relationship with Beniers and his family. 

Wanting to stay close to home, Beniers initially committed to play at Harvard, but when the COVID-19 pandemic put the Ivy League’s season in question this summer, he decided to reconsider his options.

Mayotte got a call over the summer, letting him know that Beniers was considering a switch. Beniers hadn’t seriously considered Michigan in his first round of recruiting, but had been to Ann Arbor as part of the U.S. National Team Development Program which played against the Wolverines last season. 

“He really liked the atmosphere here,” Mayotte said. “He loved the arena. He loved the game. He loved the feel.”

Beniers’ parents told Mayotte that after visiting, he wondered if he should have taken a more serious look at Michigan. 

Late in the summer, Beniers called Mayotte with his final decision. 

“Hey coach, you know, I really appreciate everything that you did,” Mayotte recalls Beniers telling him. “I know that Michigan is a great place, but growing up in Boston, I’ve always wanted to be close to home, so… Go Blue, I’m coming to Michigan.” 

When it came down to it, it was a decision about hockey. He wanted to be able to play during his draft year, and he thought the Big Ten was most likely to make that happen. Mayotte served as a familiar face in a program Beniers knew little about. Without the connection, it’s unlikely he would have ended up in Ann Arbor. 

“That’s the biggest thing when you’re making a change quickly,” Mayotte said. “You never really know exactly what a place is going to be like… A lot of times, it comes down to: Who do you trust? Do you trust the people that you’re going to play for?”

Michigan builds that trust through the reputation of its coaches and the program as a whole. And it has the track record to back it up.

The Wolverines’ alumni — Quinn Hughes, Kyle Connor, Kevin Porter — serve as proof to recruits that the Wolverines can deliver on their promises. 

“You have to be sincere,” Mayotte said. “If you tell them something’s gonna happen, it has to follow through.”

For Pearson, this year’s historic 10-freshman haul is evidence that he’s proven himself as someone who follows through.

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