It’s an unenviable task to take over a coaching job from the greatest coach in the history of a program.
That’s exactly what Mel Pearson is doing with the Michigan hockey team.
For Pearson, though, taking over for Red Berenson — the Wolverines’ coach for the last 34 seasons — isn’t as enormous an undertaking as it may seem. He served under Berenson in different capacities for 22 seasons before taking his first head coaching job with Michigan Tech in 2011. Pearson knows Ann Arbor, and he knows Michigan hockey.
He’s surrounded himself with people he’s familiar with, too. Associate head coach Bill Muckalt won two NCAA Championships as a player with the Wolverines while Pearson was behind the bench, and he was an assistant coach under Pearson with the Huskies. Assistant coaches Brian Wiseman and Steve Shields were each recruited by Pearson to play at Michigan, and they coached with Pearson once their playing careers were finished.
For one, Pearson and Muckalt have a tenure of turning around struggling hockey programs. They did it together with Michigan Tech, bringing them from a cellar-dwelling team to two NCAA Tournament appearances in just five years, and Muckalt won a Davis Cup with the USHL’s Tri-City Storm for the first time in the franchise’s history.
But whether or not they can turn around a Wolverines team that was the third-worst in the country in Corsi-percentage remains to be seen.
Additionally, there are the highly-touted freshmen, who look like they’ll make immediate, positive impacts. Namely, forward Josh Norris — a first-round NHL draft pick in 2017 — and defenseman Quinn Hughes — a projected first-round pick for the upcoming 2018 draft — were picked by Pearson as first-year players who have impressed him.
Even their contributions aren’t a sure thing yet, though.
Still, at Michigan’s Media Day on Tuesday, players and coaches alike repeated that there’s a greater sense of optimism this season.
“I think it’s just an excitement of everybody having a fresh start,” said senior forward Dexter Dancs. “I don’t think Red and Mel’s coaching styles are too different but it’s just the excitement of having a new guy and having a clean slate.”
Added sophomore forward Will Lockwood: “Mel’s bringing a lot of energy, and we have a lot of new guys, and everyone fits well. I think a lot of the chemistry between guys is great which has brought the mood in the locker room up too.”
This talk of positive feelings came the day after the Big Ten Preseason Coaches’ poll predicted the Wolverines would finish second to last in the conference.
Many of the Michigan players shook it off as something they try not to pay attention to, but all of them knew about the poll, and some of them let on that it will be used as motivation.
“We don’t try and look too much into that,” Dancs said. “But it’s obviously a little bit of an F you, I guess you could say, to us. We’re excited to prove everyone wrong.
“It was a little bit of a topic of conversation, but, you know what, we’re not looking too much into it. But it will definitely be in the back of our mind when we play every team this year.”
That type of language ran up and down the team. Whether it was sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne saying the Wolverines will “come out as the underdog and finish on top,” or Muckalt saying the beauty of the game is that it isn’t on paper, everybody relayed a feeling of confidence that this will be a successful team.
And if you want to know where the confidence comes from, look no further than the new head coach.
“I’m not a forecaster, but if I had to pick, I’d pick us to win the league,” Pearson said. “We’ve got all the things we need to be successful, but you’ve got to go out and execute. You’ve got to go out and prove it.”
And therein lies the challenge. Despite all the talented young players, the grizzled veterans who have been through the ups and downs of the last few seasons and the new head coach with a seemingly magic touch, Michigan still has to perform on the ice.
The Wolverines have talked the talk. Now, when the regular season begins on Oct. 6, they need to walk the walk.
Persak can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MikeDPersak or on Venmo @Mike-Persak