It had been an ignominious period for the Michigan hockey team. After taking an early lead in the first period, the Wolverines allowed Wisconsin to score five goals in the second to take a commanding 6-3 lead. Michigan was on the ropes, desperate for a solution to the Badgers’ onslaught.
They wouldn’t find one from senior forward Alex Kile, who checked a Wisconsin player from behind as the second period came to a close. The hit earned him a game misconduct, leading to an ejection and forcing his team to kill a five-minute power play.
“I knew he was frustrated, but he’s just got to contain that,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “It wasn’t a vicious hit. In fact, it didn’t even have to be called a penalty. But it just looked bad, for your leading scorer to put your team in that situation, and I told Alex, ‘That’s part of your learning process … self-control and understanding (you’ve) been through this before and (you’re) not going to let (yourself) get caught up in it.’ ”
Added Kile: “(Berenson) was pretty mad at me, and he let me know about it. I’m always a player that responds positively to a negative situation. (Berenson’s) gotten on me in the past, and I feel like the next game I’ve always been a pretty good player. … It’s okay if he yells at me, because he knows I can take it, and I feel like I respond well to those kind of things.”
The misconduct penalty was perhaps the low point of what had been a long season up until that point for Kile, who came into the year carrying the burden of being both the team’s leading returning scorer and one of its captains.
Both were roles Kile had anticipated taking on as soon as several of his former teammates announced they would be leaving early for the NHL. Over the course of the offseason, he worked on becoming a more vocal leader — Kile described himself as previously being a more quiet kid in the locker room — while also training extensively to increase his stamina.
And by the time the season rolled around, Berenson noticed the senior’s offseason effort, going on the record multiple times to praise Kile. It was especially gratifying for him to hear Berenson’s comments after he had worked to steadily improve each season since arriving in Ann Arbor.
“I came in as a freshman and didn’t really play that much,” Kile said. “I’ve proved myself ever since the beginning of sophomore year, so it’s definitely something that I’ve earned but it’s something that I’m not taking for granted. For someone like Red to give you compliments like that, it means a lot just being who he is.”
Despite all the preparation and praise, though, Kile — and the rest of his team — limped out of the gate. He struggled to produce, going on four and seven-game goal droughts, all while his team stumbled to a 7-8-1 start through the first half of the season.
“(Kile) really felt that this was not necessarily his team, but this was his time,” Berenson said. “He’d been part of a high-scoring machine last year, but when we lost all of those guys, now he looks around and it’s just him. He embraced that.
“I can’t tell you it’s gone smooth for him — I think it’s been a challenge. Maybe he hasn’t had the supporting cast. He was playing with two freshmen for the first number of games, and playing pretty well but not playing as consistently and productively as he would like, or that I would like.”
Kile reminisced about playing with two seniors in Boo Nieves and Justin Selman, who he called “proven” and “mature” players, on his line last season. Kile believed the trio had a natural swagger that made it easy for them to score, whereas this year, he thinks the entire team is having trouble finding that same type of confidence and thus struggling to produce.
Meanwhile, Berenson felt that Kile, burdened by high expectations, was pressing too much on the ice and becoming frustrated — something which only compounded the issue, occasionally leading to bad penalties like the misconduct against Wisconsin.
Though his penalty hurt the team in the short term, it may end up helping Michigan in the long run. Kile referred to it as a “wake-up call,” especially after his conversation with Red.
That has certainly been reflected in his play in the three games since. After tallying just two goals in his first 14 games played, Kile now has three in as many contests, scoring once against Wisconsin and twice against Michigan State in the Great Lakes Invitational. The recent uptick has coincided with sophomore forward Cooper Marody’s return from suspension. Marody has played on the first line with Kile for the past two games and assisted on both of Kile’s goals against the Spartans.
“It’s obviously not the first half of the season I wanted or our team wanted — I think every individual on our team can say that,” Kile said. “I just feel like with (Marody) back, it’s a clean slate. He’s a player that I wanted to play with at the beginning of the year and then he (was) ineligible. We aspire to do big things — we talk about it all the time — and I think we are going to be two of the better players in the Big Ten in the second half of the season.”
Added Berenson: “We put (Marody) and (Kile) together, and I think they’re going to get something going here. It was good to see (Kile) get a couple against Michigan State. In the meantime, he’s playing hard and he hasn’t lost a beat. I don’t think he’s got discouraged over all this. I think he just got more convinced that he’s gotta do it.”