It’s that time of year again.
The phase where a loss at any moment could place an abrupt end to the Michigan hockey team’s season. And when that moment finally comes, it will mark the end of a chapter for the Wolverines’ seniors, a turning point in each of their lives.
The inevitability of the close presents an opportunity to look back and reflect on where the years went.
“It’s crazy,” forward Will Lockwood said. “I was talking to some guys who’ve graduated and things like that. Guys always say it goes by faster than you think. You never really understand until you’re finally there. (Senior Day) was pretty surreal. I can’t believe how fast it’s flown by. It still really hasn’t hit me.”
It’s a senior class that went through seismic change when Michigan coach Mel Pearson took over the program from Red Berenson in 2017. A group that has seen the highs and the lows, from making the Frozen Four as sophomores and turning this current season around to tallying just 13 wins in each of the other two seasons.
But sometimes the tides can have strengthening effects on relationships, creating memories along the way.
“The little moments are probably what I’m going to miss the most,” defenseman Luke Martin said. “It’s the little encounters and the stupid little stuff that we do everyday. I’ll definitely miss those guys.”
Out of the nine players who are set to move on with their lives this spring, seven played all four years in Ann Arbor. Four of them have even been together much longer.
Before they were Wolverines, Lockwood and Martin, in addition to forward Nick Pastujov and defenseman Griffin Luce, were teammates at the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP). Lockwood mentions he has probably spent more time with some of them than with his own siblings.
That extra time makes the looming separation all the more unfathomable.
“It’s weird seeing them after (Senior Day) and then joking with their parents and our parents how it’s been six years and it just feels like it was yesterday that we were at top-40 camp even,” Pastujov said. “It’s going to be really weird to not play with them anymore, but I’m really excited to see where their careers and lives go down the road.”
Berenson has coached his fair share of NTDP alumni while at Michigan. Although the program is highly regarded, he notes it can sometimes still be hit or miss on how the players transition to college — even if they’ve played together.
Yet none of that seems to matter when it comes to this group.
“They’ve all been terrific kids,” Berenson said of the four. “These kids are really good people. They’re good kids, and they’re having a good year as seniors.”
There’s more to the senior class than just those four, though, and the others have had quite different paths.
There’s forward Jake Slaker and goaltender Hayden Lavigne, who played together with the Bloomington Thunder of the USHL prior to college. There’s even forward Adam Winborg, who grew up in Sweden. And then this season, forward Jacob Hayhurst and defenseman Shane Switzer joined the group as graduate transfers.
Pearson values the variety.
“It’s nice to have people you don’t know, too,” Pearson said. “I think that’s one of the great things, is diversity. Not having all of the guys from the same team, not having all the guys from the same league, not having all the guys from the same state. Just mixing it up, I think there are some really good things because of that.
“Guys have to find out where Saskatoon, Saskatchewan is.”
With the second-half comeback this season, the seniors bought themselves more time together. A run into the NCAA Tournament would further extend things, and appears more likely than before. Still, nobody can deny that the end is in sight.
But that doesn’t undermine that it has been special for all those involved.
“They’ve been awesome,” Pearson said. “They’ve been good to work with. I wasn’t here when they came in as recruits and sometimes you’re always concerned about that. But they’ve been really good right from day one.”