UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Mel Pearson stopped midway through his answer.
He bounced his foot on the press conference stage a few times. Then he blinked hard. He had just been asked about freshman forward Nick Granowicz, and his performance in Saturday night’s game.
“He’s been really good,” Pearson said. “He’s been really good on the road.”
Just moments earlier, Granowicz had skated off the ice after an incredible performance. He was responsible for two of Michigan’s four goals in a come-from-behind 4-4 tie with Penn State that saw Garrett Van Wyhe give the Wolverines an extra point with a double-overtime winner. But that was only part of what had Pearson feeling so sentimental. The other half was Granowicz’s late mother, Valerie. Saturday night would have been her 53rd birthday.
And the number 71 embroidered on the back and arms of Granowicz’s jersey is a tribute to her and his father, Dennis. Valerie’s birth year is 1967 and Dennis’ is 1971. Granowicz’s number is combination of the two years, the seven from his mother and the one from his father.
This summer, Valerie passed away. And coping with that loss, on top of starting college was difficult for Granowicz. He had responsibilities to take care of at home, like Dennis and his sister. So when he arrived on campus in the fall, he wasn’t in quite as good of shape as his teammates.
Granowicz knew it, but he wasn’t discouraged.
Instead, he used it as a source of motivation. He poured in extra hours working and training. He stayed focused, and most importantly — he stayed positive.
“I’m a strong believer that everything stems from hard work,” Granowicz said. “I just wanted to be prepared for my opportunities and for when the coaching staff felt comfortable putting me in. Basically just working on my game, working hard and preparing. Hoping it would pay off, it’s going good so far.”
In the very beginning of the season, his opportunities to make an impact were limited. His hard work wasn’t being rewarded. That’s why the path to his performance Saturday night was anything but linear. Granowicz didn’t even crack a lineup until Nov. 2 against Ohio State. He never saw consistent minutes. He played in one game of every weekend series except against New Hampshire, where he sat out both nights.
And along the way, there were setbacks — like the game against Wisconsin. Granowicz took a penalty in the final five minutes of the game for roughing. The Badgers converted on the power play opportunity to cut the Wolverines’ lead. His penalty ultimately didn’t end up costing his team the game, but Pearson didn’t play him the remaining minutes once he left the box.
But again, rather than looking at the negative side, Granowicz took that moment as a learning opportunity. His emotions needed to be managed.
That game Pearson realized something too. Granowicz deserved more opportunities. The coaches weren’t playing him enough.
Last weekend, that changed. Against then-No. 14 Notre Dame, he showed exactly the types of big plays he’s capable of making. Granowicz proved himself. He also netted his first career goal when a puck deflected off his head in the Wolverines’ 3-0 victory.
But Saturday night at Pegula Ice Arena, his performance meant something bigger.
Granowicz’s first goal of the game came from a deflection off his body. He’d seen freshman forward Johnny Beecher cutting towards the crease and remembered a piece of advice he’d been given — if you want to score goals, go to the net. So Granowicz crashed towards the net and when the play was over, the hard work paid off for him. He’d tied the game.
“I’ve been getting a lot of opportunities,” Granowicz said. “I just wanted to capitalize on those. Score some goals. Help the team out. Help them win.”
But he wasn’t satisfied, he still hadn’t scored a goal with his stick. Almost 20 minutes later, Granowicz accomplished that feat. He was positioned on the right side of the crease when the puck made its way to him. Without hesitation and as though he’d done it a million times before, Granowicz sent a quick release into the back of the net.
He lifted one leg off the ice, waved his stick in the air and skated toward the Michigan bench in celebration. This time, he’d given his team the lead.
“It was very special,” Granowicz said. “It was obviously my mom’s birthday, God bless her heart. I think she was with me tonight. It’s more motivation to have a good game tonight and win. It was so big.”