When Mel Pearson returned to Michigan in 2017, he had his work cut out for him.
Taking the reigns of a program is challenging, especially following a lackluster season and especially following the footsteps of Red Berenson, a U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer and Michigan legend. Immediately, one must think about what to keep from the previous regime, what new things to bring in, building trust with players, recruiting and getting the team back on track.
Often overlooked, though, is what teams to schedule.
The Michigan hockey team (2-1-1) typically plans its schedule three years in advance. So upon Pearson’s arrival, many of this season’s series — such as the recent two against Clarkson and Lake Superior State — were already set in stone.
Still, Pearson had a say in how to fill the leftover non-conference schedule. With that opportunity, he supported talk of playing Western Michigan, and as a result the Wolverines will face the No. 18 Broncos (1-2-1) this weekend in a home-and-home series.
The two teams met last season for the first time since 2013 and split the series in high-scoring affairs. Back in the CCHA days, the matchup was a significant rivalry. Having served as an assistant and associate head coach at Michigan for 23 years, Pearson is no stranger to the history.
“I like it. It was a good rivalry,” Pearson said. “I think it’s important that we continue to play in-state teams in Michigan. I think it’s good for them and their fan base. I think it’s good for us and our fan base.
“I think you can relate to Western Michigan, whatever you think about ‘em, versus Colorado College or Nebraska-Omaha. Not to pick on them, but there’s some history there. And I know sometimes you have to create new rivalries, but I just think it’s real important, if we can, to support the in-state teams.”
Playing local teams is meaningful to players, too, especially senior forward Will Lockwood, who grew up in Michigan. He enjoys these non-conference in-state games, particularly because such matchups are uncommon.
“To go over to their barn is really exciting. They have a pretty historic rink over there and some crazy fans so that'll be fun Saturday night,” Lockwood said. “I know they like coming here to play, and it's kind of been a rivalry out of conference which makes it for an exciting game.”
This weekend will serve as the Wolverines’ second real test of the season — the Broncos return eight of their top 10 in points from last season, including the top four goal scorers. They were an offensive team last year, scoring 3.5 goals per game for the sixth-best in the nation, and look similar this time around.
Forward Wade Allison, a former NHL Draft second-round pick, tallied 29 points as a freshman but suffered an ACL injury the following year. He found success last season as a junior with 15 points, but was never truly back to his freshman year form. If Allison can find his old-self this weekend, he could give Michigan a challenge.
It is still unclear whether freshman defenseman Cam York will be in the Wolverines’ lineup, after sustaining a minor injury weeks ago and sitting out the last three games. York made his way back on the ice this week in practice, though, so Pearson will ultimately leave the decision to the freshman.
“I think as far as the injury goes, there’s no issues as far as hurting it again or hurting it more, or I guess, injuring it more than it is,” Pearson said. “I think he’s to the stage now where he can play, it’s just with the pain tolerance and just how he feels. And you have to feel confident. You can’t go in the game worried about it because then you might as well not play. So it’ll be his call.”
While Michigan swept the Lakers this past weekend, York’s absence was apparent, as the blueliners gave up a handful of odd-man rushes. Senior defenseman Luke Martin anticipates fast-paced games, and he thinks minor tune-ups should help the group defend better against the rush.
“I think they’ll be able to capitalize on our mistakes a little bit more than maybe teams that we’ve seen,” Martin said. “And yeah, I think just trying to limit our mistakes but not be on our heels. We still have to play the way we want to play and take our game to theirs.”
Whether the Wolverines can execute this game plan is yet to be seen. But one thing is for certain — the stakes are higher this weekend.
“Obviously anytime you play an in-state school there’s some bragging rights involved with that,” Pearson said. “No question.”