When Nick Boka jumped into a brawl against Michigan State in the Great Lakes Invitational, it wasn’t the first time that the senior bled for the Michigan hockey team.
From the time he could pick up a stick, Boka wanted to be a Wolverine. And both of his grandparents were fervent Michigan hockey fans. Many years back at a Michigan game, Boka was playing mini-sticks in the halls behind the bleachers at Yost Ice Arena.
As he lunged forward with his stick, Boka crashed into a picture frame on the wall and shattered his stick. But after a team employee picked glass out of his hair for the rest of the game, he left the arena that night not only happy but with a Red Berenson-signed stick to replace his old one.
“I don’t remember much of it but I still have that signed stick with me,” Boka said. “It’s pretty special.”
After four years on the blue line for the Wolverines, it’s hard to imagine him wearing anything other than a Michigan sweater. But when Boka first started getting recruited, he initially turned to the Spartans. Though Michigan was the defenseman’s preferred destination, he didn’t get an offer right away.
Boka’s former coach with the Detroit-based Honeybaked hockey program, Tom Anastos, was the Spartans’ head coach at the time, giving him the same chance to latch on to something comfortable that he would have had with the Wolverines. Though Michigan State went a middling 30-34-11 in Anastos’ first two seasons at the helm, it was enough for Boka, who committed to play in East Lansing during his freshman year of high school.
“At the time, Tom was the coach at State when I was going through the recruiting process,” Boka said. “… It just felt like the right move at the right time.”
In time, however, Boka began to feel differently. While Michigan spent the better part of a quarter-century skating its way to Frozen Fours, Michigan State only made the tournament once in the six years prior to Boka’s commitment. The Spartans had his old coach, old players he played against and even some of his old teammates, but the even more familiar allure of Michigan beckoned. Without even being committed for a full year, he decommitted.
Once Boka’s choice became public, Wolverines assistant coach Brian Wiseman knew that Boka wanted to be a Wolverine and brought him to Ann Arbor. When Boka saw Berenson, the coach remembered the signed stick that he gave Boka, and his conversation with Wiseman sealed the deal.
“I decommitted on my own because, as I said it never felt right,” Boka said. “On my recruiting visit, (Wiseman) knew I wanted to be a Wolverine and wanted to come here. Michigan was the first school I visited after I decommitted, and I committed right away.
“Luckily for me, Wiseman spoke to me at the right time. (Michigan State) never felt right to me, it never felt right in my heart. He said ‘there’s always a spot for me at Michigan. So I’m pretty thankful for him and for the opportunity to play here. I couldn’t be happier with how it all turned out.”
Those former junior hockey teammates and familiar faces from East Lansing? They’re anything but that now. Boka himself admits that when the two in-state rivals meet on Friday in Ann Arbor and Saturday in the “Duel in the D”, there won’t be any love lost between the two rivals.
For familiarity’s sake, both he and Michigan wouldn’t have it any other way.