It looked like an ordinary, run-of-the-mill practice. The entire Michigan hockey team was on the ice working through drills and skating the occasional sprint, while the three goaltenders rotated in and out of the nets at each end.
But there was one major difference that made for an atypical day at Yost Ice Arena last Wednesday.
Instead of being down on the ice coaching, Mel Pearson and his staff were forced to sit in the stands and watch.
According to Big Ten rules, teams must have two days off per week before the official start of their season. But on those days off, coaches can make the ice available for any player who would like to get extra reps in.
“(The rule is) to try and help student athletes and take some of the burden off of them as far as the practice out of season and whatnot,” Pearson said Sept. 11. “But if you ask our guys (on days) like today, would they rather be out there with coaches or just out there (doing) their own thing?
“They’re hockey players. A couple of them are gonna be multi-million-dollar athletes. They’re training. It’s why they’re here. That’s what they want to do.”
Pearson isn’t normally one to voice his frustrations with rules or officiating, but at a meeting of the Big Ten hockey coaches on Wednesday, Pearson hopes they’ll get the ball rolling on a conversation about potential changes. It’s clear there are a few hot-button issues Pearson feels strongly about, including being allowed to add a third full-time assistant coach.
When asked about the issue of a third coach, Pearson answered quickly and decisively, stating his answer before the question was fully posed.
“Yes,” Pearson said. “Absolutely.”
The Wolverines have 28 players and just three full-time coaches — Pearson, associate head coach Bill Muckalt and assistant coach Kris Mayotte. For perspective, Michigan basketball has 15 players and four full-time coaches, and Michigan football has 11 coaches for 85 scholarship players and a number of walk-ons.
While other college sports have the option of recruiting during their offseason, hockey season runs the same portion of the year at every level of the sport, forcing Pearson and his staff to balance being at Michigan with being out on the road recruiting.
Pearson spent 23 years with the Wolverines under Red Berenson, and he said for most road trips, only Berenson and one assistant would travel with the team while the other assistant went out on recruiting trips.
There have been conversations about advocating for an additional coach, but the Division II and III schools with Division I hockey programs tend to put a stop to such talks. While schools like Michigan and other Power Five teams can afford another salary, the smaller schools with more limited resources are more resistant to additional staff.
“We’re not as unified and as organized as some of the other coaches’ associations, and that’s where (the decision) has to come from,” Pearson said. “I know softball and baseball are trying to get another third coach right now. We definitely need one.”
Other rules also frustrate Pearson, such as the NCAA-mandated extra 14 days that must be taken off during the school year. Because Michigan starts school after Labor Day and begins second semester early in January, the Wolverines have to take their extra days off in-season or much closer to the season than Pearson would like.
“Some programs, it doesn’t affect,” Pearson said Monday. “But for us, because of our academic calendar, it really affects our program, taking the extra 14 days off. I’d like to see that change.”
Part of Pearson’s displeasure comes from the fact that the rules vary by conference, with few rules about days off and the like shared across college hockey. The off-day that required him to sit and watch practice from the stands is mandated by the Big Ten, but schools like Ferris State, which the Wolverines will face at the Great Lakes Invitational, only have to take one day off per week.
“You’re already behind,” Pearson said Sept. 11. “Every week you lose a day.”
On Wednesday, the Big Ten hockey head coaches and sport administrators from each school will meet to discuss some of the issues facing the sport. While Pearson is hopeful they’ll start a conversation for some rule changes, both within the conference and across the sport, he has a cynical attitude about it after nearly 40 years in coaching.
“When you get 60 schools voting on something — I know that the way it’s structured is that Division I schools are the only ones supposed to vote on Division I issues — but with hockey, it’s weird,” Pearson said. “A lot of times we don’t get things passed, even though we’re in a Power Five conference. We should have power. We don’t have any power. It’s one of the most frustrating parts.”