Mel Pearson sat across the table from Will Lockwood, waiting for the words that would define expectations for the Michigan hockey team’s upcoming season.
Pearson’s nerves crept in with every word Lockwood said, but they had already been there the moment the senior forward called to arrange the meeting.
Pearson knew what was coming. He had done this before when former defenseman Quinn Hughes called him last year to talk about his decision to return for his sophomore season. Back then, Pearson’s hopes had come true with Hughes returning.
Lockwood seemed to suggest a different outcome.
“I’ve been in many, many of these meetings about players, talking about whether coming back or leaving early,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “And I just felt he was leaving.”
Lockwood’s tone and delivery was as solemn as could be.
“Coach, I’ve come to a decision. I’ve made a decision.” Pearson recalled Lockwood saying. “… I’ve decided I want to come back and finish. Finish something that I started that I haven’t done yet.”
The decision to return for his senior season didn’t come easily; it never seems to. But with Lockwood especially, a lot of things came into play. The Wolverines came into last season with high expectations, coming off a Frozen Four run that he missed with a shoulder injury, and looked to continue that success. But, a 13-16-7 record brought them back to reality and a loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament ended any hope of extending the season.
“When the season ended, I didn’t even really start thinking about it for maybe a week,” Lockwood said. “Just because we didn’t really finish the way we wanted to, and it was kind of a disappointing finish the year.”
The process took several weeks. Not wanting to make a choice he might regret, Lockwood took his time and evaluated all factors. The 2018-19 season’s disappointing result was one, but his readiness for the next level and his education got taken into account.
“He made an educated decision,” Pearson said, “got all the information on the facts.”
His decision came over the course of two to three weeks in March. There was no urgency with the Vancouver Canucks — the NHL team that drafted him in 2016.
Though Pearson and the Michigan coaching staff took a hands-off approach, he approached them several times with questions and concerns. He went around asking friends, family — anyone, really, who he had a hockey connection with growing up — on what he should do.
“I kept having my mom tell me to get my degree,” Lockwood joked. “But, other than that, I took my dad's advice, he's been a role model for me my whole life. And he was the one who just told me to kind of stick with what feels right and what feels comfortable.”
And then a random morning in the spring, Lockwood woke up and just knew.
He raced to tell his dad, and then, immediately after, called Pearson.
“(Lockwood) wanted to come back for a reason,” Pearson said. “With a purpose in mind, not just to come back. But come back with a purpose of No. 1, making sure he’s more ready than he was last year to go pro. And then obviously to finish his degree. And then No. 3 is to help us to get back to where we need to go.”
An injury sidelined Lockwood much of his sophomore season — that year, the Wolverines pulled together a Frozen Four run. Instead of celebrating with the team on the ice after a 6-3 win over Boston University that propelled them to the semi-finals, Lockwood watched from behind the glass — secluded and unable to claim the team’s success as his own.
“He's kind of battled with some injuries and missed some games and missed a good portion of our sophomore season,” senior forward Jake Slaker said. “I think that hurt him a little bit, especially because we made such a good run.”
“I wasn't really too satisfied with that,” Lockwood said. “And I wanted to be a leader on the team and come back and have a little more success senior year.
His impact as a player was never in question. Recipient of the Hal Downes Trophy and Dekers Club Award, team awards for most valuable player and top freshman, he had earned his stripes as one of the team’s best his freshman year. He scored 20 points in his rookie year campaign and had tallied 11 points in 16 games as a sophomore before concluding his season with an injury.
“I know if he was out there with us,” Slaker said. “maybe we would have the National Championship.”
And after Michigan veered off its projected course with a sub-.500 season in 2018-19, Lockwood felt the need to come back, to help rectify the disaster of a season. And as the Wolverines’ 100th captain and a leading force on the team, he hopes to do “big things with this team.”
It’s a title he’s earned and an expectation he’s sought. Instead of Canucks training camp, fighting for a roster spot, Lockwood spent this week opening Michigan’s practice donning the Captain’s ‘C’ for the first time.
“At the end of the day,” Lockwood said, “it kind of came down to what my heart was telling me.”