The cavernous arena in Minneapolis was nearly empty. Few were there to witness Michigan, a team that began the season with so many expectations, limp off the ice one last time.
It was early March, just the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, and the season was over. When it ended, it felt sudden, though the writing had been on the wall long before.
A year after coming within six seconds of playing for a national title, the Wolverines were going home prematurely.
Six months to the day later, Michigan coach Mel Pearson strode into the media room at Yost Ice Arena on Monday, fresh from the team’s first practice and ready to get going on a new season.
“Fire away,” Pearson said. “I’ve got all sorts of (answers).”
Within moments, Pearson was asked about how he’s approaching this season given what happened last year. A record of 13-16-7 — the same number of wins as Red Berenson’s final year, when it became clear it was time for a change — is not what Pearson was hired to produce. He knows that. Everyone in the program knows that.
But Pearson has been in hockey for his entire life. He’s been coaching hockey since 1982 — before some members of his staff were even born.
“I think one of the worst things you can do is to overreact one way or the other,” Pearson said. “When you look at the year, I think we were disappointed in the end result, but when you realize (if) you win one more game you finish second place in the Big Ten, you’re not that far off of a really good league. You don’t overreact.”
Over the course of the conversation, it became clear that the coaching staff would be all but the same this fall if former Michigan assistant Brian Wiseman hadn’t taken a job with the Edmonton Oilers. Part of not overreacting is not making sweeping changes based off of one year, and that was the group that took the Wolverines to the Frozen Four in 2018.
But the staff isn’t the same. Wiseman did leave for the NHL, and Pearson suddenly had an opportunity to reevaluate some things. He didn’t go looking for things to change after last year, but all of a sudden, he was forced to.
“It just gave myself and our staff a chance to reevaluate our program and what we needed to help make us better,” Pearson said. “That's what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to make the program better.”
Pearson knows this program better than just about anyone not named Red Berenson. He spent 23 years at Berenson’s side as an assistant, building Michigan into the program that made an unprecedented 22 straight NCAA tournaments.
But since 2013, when the streak was broken and Pearson was two years into his tenure as head coach at Michigan Tech, things have been different in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines have fallen into a pattern of a couple of bad years, followed by a good year, and then another down year after that. Michigan hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years since the streak ended.
A down year in 2017 was followed by a Frozen Four run in 2018. If the pattern holds, a down year in the 2018-19 season could well be followed by another strong season.
And now, Pearson has new perspectives inside the program. Kris Mayotte was brought in to run the penalty kill and is the first full-time goaltenders’ coach at Michigan in Pearson's memory.
“As much as you hate to see a guy like Brian leave — he was great for our staff, great in the transition, you really hate to see him go,” Pearson said. “But it’s a great opportunity for him and it gave us an opportunity to do some things we maybe couldn’t if he was here.”
While Pearson isn’t overreacting to last year, he took the chance presented by Wiseman’s departure to mix some things up. With Mayotte’s hiring, associate head coach Bill Muckalt moves from running the penalty kill to running the power play. Volunteer assistant Steve Shields, previously the Wolverines’ only goaltender coach, is now part of coaching team with Mayotte.
Fresh voices and fresh perspectives can always be useful to a coach. Overreacting to last season would be a mistake, but not changing anything would be equally incorrect. Pearson was forced into making changes with Wiseman’s departure, and it may well be the best thing that could’ve happened to Michigan this season.
In the last weekend of the regular season this year, the Wolverines return to that cavernous arena in Minneapolis. Maybe there will be a few more fans, and maybe, if Pearson’s changes work, the team slowly skating off the ice will be different this time.