Red Berenson made it quite clear when he retired — he preferred his successor as the head coach of the Michigan hockey team to be a ‘Michigan man.’
The longtime Wolverine coach’s wish came true Tuesday morning, when Michigan announced it hired Mel Pearson as the new coach after a two-week long search.
“I am very honored and proud for this opportunity to be the next head coach at Michigan,” Pearson said in a press release. “I am looking forward to continuing to build upon the rich and successful tradition of Michigan hockey.
“I would like to thank President Schlissel, Warde Manuel and my longtime mentor and friend Red Berenson for entrusting me with this opportunity. I spent 23 years here and thoroughly enjoyed my time in Ann Arbor. I am excited to be back and am looking forward to meeting the team and getting ready for next season.”
Added athletic director Warde Manuel: “I am thrilled to select Mel to lead our hockey program and for him to return home to U-M following tremendous success in leading the Michigan Tech program. I’ve known Mel for years and experienced his leadership ability when I was the sport administrator for hockey and he was an assistant under Red (Berenson).
“Mel’s qualifications are well known throughout the hockey community and reach far beyond his ability to coach. Simply put, I couldn’t have selected a finer person to lead our ice hockey program into the future.”
By definition, Pearson is a ‘Michigan man.’ He was Berenson’s right-hand man for over two decades, spending 23 years as an assistant coach at Michigan, including 11 as the associate head coach.
During his time in Ann Arbor, Pearson helped Berenson build the program into a perennial title contender. He was behind the bench when Michigan won national championships in 1995-96 and 1997-98 after helping to recruit many of the players on both teams. In 2000, he received the Terry Flanagan Award from the American Hockey Coaches Association for his career as an assistant coach.
Pearson’s final year with the Wolverines was during 2010-11, when they finished as the national runner-up. After that season, he left to become the head coach of his alma mater of Michigan Tech, tasked with turning around a moribond program. It took him just three years to bring the Huskies to their first-ever No. 1 ranking while developing them into a consistent NCAA contender — under Pearson’s watch, Michigan Tech reached the NCAA Tournament twice in the past three seasons, the only times it has done so since 1981.
Bill Muckalt, the current head coach and general manager of the USHL’s Tri-City Storm, had the unique perspective of both playing and coaching under Pearson.
He was recruited by Pearson to Michigan, where he played on both national championship teams. Then, over a decade later, Pearson recruited Muckalt once more — this time, to join the Huskies coaching staff.
“I think the world of Mel,” Muckalt said Tuesday. “He’s done a tremendous job as a coach and is a great selection by the administration at Michigan. Mel has paid his dues, and he’s done a great job. I learned a lot from Mel at Michigan Tech. It was a pleasure to work with him. It’s a very exciting day for the program … and I know he’s going to do a great job.
“(Pearson) and the staff had a huge impact on not just my life but a lot of people’s lives, inside of hockey and out. I learned a lot, and Michigan helped put me in the NHL. It was a very tremendous experience, and then as a coach, to be with him, learned a lot about coaching from him … and I think we had quite a bit of success and the little bit of the success that I’ve had as a coach, I owe a lot of it to Mel. It’s a huge honor for him, and I’m excited for him and his family and for the program in general.”
Perhaps no school other than Michigan felt Pearson’s absence more: In the six years since he left Ann Arbor for Houghton, the Wolverines made the NCAA Tournament just twice, snapping a 22-year tournament streak in the process. This past season, the team’s overall record was the worst it had been in nearly three decades.
So Pearson will face a similar task to the one he did with the Huskies: find a way to turn Michigan back into a consistent postseason contender. He’ll do so with more NHL-level talent than he ever had at Michigan Tech — the Wolverines still have a loaded roster, barring any unforeseen departures, and will add several talented players to next year’s team — and he’ll do so with his mentor’s blessing.
“I think Mel is a great fit for Michigan hockey,” Berenson said. “He knows the program well from his time here, and I think he is exactly what Michigan hockey needs to be successful.”