Sitting there Wednesday, watching practice, you couldn’t tell anything had changed.
The motions were the same. The drills. The pace. The intensity.
But something was different. There was no Mel Pearson in skates with a stick watching over practice. No assistant coaches. Just the players led by their captains.
During the preseason, the NCAA mandates teams have two days off from practicing. Optional practice is allowed one of those days, but no coaches can be on the ice. During these practices, the four letter-wearers — the captain, Will Lockwood, and the three alternate captains Luke Martin, Griffin Luce and Jake Slaker, all seniors — are responsible for keeping the intensity.
“Really (the) goal is if you guys are just watching practice, we don’t want anyone to be able to tell that there aren’t coaches,” Martin said.
The occasional preseason captains’ practice isn’t the only time these four have the opportunity to lead practice. From May to August, captains lead on- and off-ice workouts, too.
However, they aren’t without help. The coaching staff, though unable able to get directly involved, provides the players with all the things they need to successfully imitate the day-to-day conditions the coaches foster. The coaches scribble instructions on a sheet of paper and pass them to the captains, leaving the rest in the players’ hands.
It’s ultimately up to the captains to make sure the drills are done right. Not running too short, not running too long. And most importantly, making sure the same intensity is there.
“There’s a lot of us just pushing ourselves and pushing each other,” Slaker said. “We’re 20, 24, 23 years old, so we gotta push each other. We’re adults now. We don’t have to have a coach on the ice every time we get better.”
The hyperfocus on intensity levels stems from a hope to mirror game conditions. A game setting ups the physical play, the speed, the stakes. Treating practice like a game can help the team prepare for those tough moments during the season — like holding a lead in a close game or finding the back of the net to break a tie.
As for how the four captains go about keeping the intensity, the styles vary. Lockwood strives to lead by example and set the bar high for the younger players so they know what’s expected of them. Martin takes a more vocal approach.
“It’s fun to sort of lead the pace,” Martin said. “To be the couple voices that are pushing guys. Like I said, we’re really not going out there and just going through the motions. We’re really getting something out of it and getting better every day.”
And the progress of the players in the practices doesn’t go unmonitored.
Normally during a captains’ practice, the coaches catch brief glimpses from the mezzanine level of Yost.
Though he was unable to sit among the other coaches due to obligations to attend the Big Ten coaches meeting, Pearson made sure to check in. Pearson called up Lockwood and asked if he had any thoughts on the drills Pearson had left for them to do.
The most notable comment Lockwood offered up about the skate? The high level of intensity.
But even with all the emphasis placed on intensity by the captains, Martin admits there’s still a slight turbulence transitioning between the summer sessions and practicing with the coaches.
“It’s different,” Martin said. “It’s just higher pace. Everything’s just quicker … But it’s really good to be back. Obviously these first couple weeks are all about just grinding through, but at the same time just trying to stay as fresh as you can. It’s a long season.”
With just 17 days laying between the Wolverines and their first exhibition game against Windsor, there’s no time to be wasted. And they’re full speed ahead, whether coaches are allowed to be at practice or not.
“Because, really, if you need the coach to push you, this probably isn’t the right program for you,” Martin said. “You should be pushing yourself.”