On Jan. 7 against then-No. 1 Notre Dame in South Bend, the Michigan hockey team skated off the ice with heads hanging low after 40 minutes of play. The Wolverines allowed two unanswered goals in the second period and found themselves down, 2-0, heading into the third.
As Michigan made its way down the tunnel, defenseman Nicholas Boka slammed his stick into the ground and let out an expletive so loud it echoed throughout Compton Family Ice Arena.
Known for wearing his emotions on his sleeves, the junior let everyone know the dejected state of the Wolverines. Michigan would go on to lose, 2-1, sending it to a dismal 8-10-2 record — a continuation of last year’s disappointment — with little hope for NCAA Tournament contention.
Almost two months later, Boka — always the last player to exit the pregame skate — left the Yost Ice Arena rink all smiles. As fans piled in for a Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal matchup against Wisconsin last Saturday, the blueliner would again be the telltale sign of an upbeat dressing room.
Riding a nation’s-best seven-game unbeaten streak, the Wolverines were only one win away from sweeping the Badgers and advancing to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals for a rivalry showdown against Ohio State. They’d proceed to a 7-4 victory and are all but guaranteed an NCAA Tournament berth in upcoming weeks.
Following Saturday’s win, Michigan coach Mel Pearson was quick to applaud Boka, who assisted on sophomore defenseman Griffin Luce’s goal to put the Wolverines up, 6-3, early in the third period. The helper added to Boka’s plus-15 rating, best among the Wolverine defensemen.
“Nick’s been really good the second half, and good for him,” Pearson said. “He had a lot of ice time tonight and gives us another strong defenseman. I like our defense. Even though we gave up a lot of goals this weekend, I like a lot of things about them.”
What evolution in Boka’s game has led to this major improvement down the stretch?
“Emotional control,” Pearson said, without skipping a beat, after practice Tuesday. “I think he’s not getting wrapped up in a lot of things that’s gone on in the games. He’s now worried about what he needs to do to be a good player and help the team.
“The thing with Nick is he’s very competitive. … We’ve just had to have him dial in emotionally and manage the game emotionally. He’s always had good skills when it comes to skating and puck handling, he just gets a little out of sorts. We said to him, ‘Just play the game.’ ”
Through many one-on-one conversations, Pearson has reigned in Boka’s temperament, encouraging tough and physical play without committing avoidable penalties.
And it’s translated to his on-ice success.
After 10 games without a point, Boka registered two assists in his last three games. He’s blocked 42 shots this season and continues to limit turnovers in the defensive zone. His game has strengthened in proportion to his disposition, resulting in increased trust from Pearson.
In Saturday’s contest, Boka played more minutes than most blueliners, despite practicing only once the prior week and missing Friday’s game due to an upper-body injury sustained during the regular season finale against Arizona State.
Even with a lineup that has regularly changed throughout the season based on game and practice performance, Boka, if healthy, was virtually guaranteed to lace up his skates against Wisconsin and receive substantial ice time.
“He’s put money in the bank,” Pearson said. “He’s made some good deposits over the course of the year, so when he came in to withdraw, he had some money in there. That’s how you look at it. He’s played well. This time of year, sometimes when you miss practice it’s no big deal. He’s a good skater, so he doesn’t get too far behind.”
But Boka didn’t take that for granted, quickly getting back to full strength for Saturday’s game.
“It was tough watching the game Friday from the stands,” Boka said. “Throughout the week, it was just doing rehab to get back in the lineup. I hate watching, and I want to do my best to help the team.”
The Plymouth, Mich. native credits his teammates and newfound emotional restraint as reasons for his recent advances.
“I think when the team plays well, it makes it easier to do your job,” Boka said. “… It makes it easier on me to focus on my role and shut down other teams, and it’s been working for me.
“I also think it’s just being aware of my emotions. Hockey is a pretty emotional game, and there’s going to be ups and downs, but you just have to kind of prepare for that aspect. … Once I start talking, it gets my emotions going. I try to stay away from it and talk to my teammates instead of other teams. And it’s definitely helped in keeping my emotions in check.”
Added Luce, Boka’s defensive partner for most of the season: “He’s an emotional guy and … I know he likes to stir things up. But the chemistry between us is great, so if I’m getting too emotional, he’ll give me a pat on the back, say ‘Hey, relax,’ and I think the same goes for him. I think we’re on that level with each other where we can take each other down or bring each other up if we need to.”
But have no fear, Boka is still the same passionate — and vocal — leader he’s always been.
He still jaws with opponents and partakes in extracurricular activity after the whistle. In the first game of the Sun Devils’ series, Boka faced a standoff against defenseman Jakob Stridsberg.
As always, after pregame skate, Boka waited for Arizona State to get off the ice and go to its locker room before he did. Stridsberg decided to wait, too.
It took some referee intervention, but Boka got the best of Stridsberg. He was the last one to leave his home ice.
Boka still holds the same approach in deciding which players he goes after — go for those who are easily unnerved and stay away from those who would go unfazed.
And he’s still the player Pearson believes is one of the best trash talkers in all of college hockey.
As the postseason rolls on and the Wolverines look to more good fortune, No. 74 in the maize sweater will be a key force on the backline. Not just as his bruiser reputation proceeds him, but as a vital cog in the Michigan engine on both sides of the ice.