Times have changed.
It wasn’t too long ago that the No. 3 Michigan hockey team looked destined for greatness in its centennial season. In August, the Wolverines’ top NHL draft picks decided to return for their sophomore season. In October, Michigan secured back-to-back wins against top-five opponents. And just last month, it swept the defending national champions and split a key series at Minnesota.
But now, the Wolverines’ future looks far less certain.
Michigan’s four-highest point scorers are on another continent. Its program is under investigation for serious allegations surrounding Title IX violations, COVID-19 misconduct, workplace culture complaints and knowledge of abuse by Dr. Robert Anderson.
A season that looked to be special is at risk of losing its magic.
Sophomore forwards Matty Beniers, Kent Johnson and Brendan Brisson and sophomore defenseman Owen Power are representing the United States and Canada at the 2022 Winter Olympics. Meanwhile, Michigan is locked in a tight race for top of the Big Ten, and will be without the four skaters against Michigan State and Big Ten-leading No. 9 Ohio State.
The Buckeyes are five points ahead of the Wolverines, but have played two more conference games. Even if Michigan manages a sweep against the last-place Spartans without the four skaters, one loss in the Ohio State series would make a first-place conference finish almost impossible. That would force the Wolverines to travel for a Big Ten Championship game, making a conference championship even more difficult.
And failing to win the conference can saddle Michigan with difficult tests prior to the Frozen Four. In single-elimination hockey, that can be lethal.
If the Wolverines can even make it there.
The investigation into the Wolverines’ hockey program has been ongoing since October, but after reports made it public last weekend, it now looms large. Although the alleged wrongdoings were perpetrated by the coaching staff, it is the skaters who are thrust into an especially uncomfortable position.
Expected to perform at the highest level and live up to lofty preseason expectations, the investigation throws a big wrench in the players’ plans. It’s an investigation regarding misdoings that they were instructed by their coaches to perform — such as lying on COVID-19 contact tracing forms — and egregious actions on the part of the team’s administration, but it will be the players who may be faced with the fallout.
At any given moment, WilmerHale — the Washington D.C.-based law firm conducting the investigation on behalf of the University of Michigan athletic department — can release its findings. If the investigation confirms allegations, Michigan coach Mel Pearson will undoubtedly be fired, and the Wolverines’ season could quickly unhinge.
Pearson, however, is adamant that his job is secure, and claims that his team wasn’t affected by news of the investigation.
“We addressed it Saturday (and the team was) fantastic,” Pearson said on Jan. 31. “One thing I’ll say is the culture is phenomenal on this team. Distractions, any they have, they focus on what they’re doing on the ice and performing on the ice.”
As much as Pearson wants us to believe that — it’s bullshit.
Even the potential repercussions of parts of the investigation being found true are enough to cause distractions. The potential consequences are just too large to ignore.
It could prove injustices that have no place in society, and a blatant disregard to public health during a public-health crisis. The findings could raise a plethora of questions and displace Michigan hockey for years to come.
If results are released in the coming weeks and find Pearson and company at fault, would the Wolverines’ NHL prospects in Beijing even bother returning to the team? They came back to compete for a National Championship; would they risk their health prior to entering the NHL for a goal that could disappear if Michigan’s season is flipped upside down?
Would the NCAA even allow the Wolverines to compete in the postseason tournament? Would they face repercussions if caught potentially exposing opposing teams to COVID-19 in last season’s tournament?
The investigation is ongoing. There are no definite answers, and no proof of guilt. Pearson has made that clear.
“The truth will come through at the end of the investigation,” Pearson said. “And I feel very confident that the allegations will be proved wrong.”
Unfortunately for Pearson, feelings won’t resolve the investigation, facts will. No matter how good he claims to feel right now, Michigan is sitting squarely on a fault line, and it can slip without warning.
Despite their success this season, the Wolverines are in deep danger. A potentially damning investigation. A thinned-out roster. A difficult upcoming schedule.
Michigan is in jeopardy, and it may not have answers.