Mel Pearson sat down casually and focused on his next few words.
He gestured with the flat of his hands, raising one inches from his chest area and the other to his eye level.
“You don’t want to take it from here,” the Michigan coach said, indicating the level of play with his hands’ positioning. “And all of a sudden, you play a game to here.”
Pearson was preparing his team for the start of the season. In a game, every aspect of hockey is ramped up — speed, strength, skill. The standards for a game could not be easily mimicked in practice. But that’s what the Michigan hockey team is striving for.
“We want the intensity,” Pearson said. “We want the pace. We want the speed up, and then hopefully, because if we get there, then the execution will stay there.”
High-octane practices. Stricter conditioning. Countless repetitions. The team did everything in its power to get as close to in-game conditions and as in shape as possible — for the sake of getting off to a strong start to the season. And that reason being, the last two seasons, the Wolverines have begun the year poorly.
The previous two seasons under Pearson, Michigan amassed an 8-8-1-1 record with a loss to Bowling Green on New Year's two years ago, and a 6-7-2-3 in the same stretch of time last year.
Even in years prior, dating back to Pearson’s tenure at Michigan Tech, his teams have struggled to start a season successfully. In 2016-17, the year before Pearson departed for the Wolverines, the Huskies lost their first four games, starting the season 1-5-2 — though they eventually turned the season around to get an NCAA Tournament bid.
It’s a problem Pearson’s aware of.
But this year, he anticipates a different result.
“The first year, I can understand why with new systems and new coaches and a lot of different things going on,” Pearson said. “And last year, I can’t put my finger on it. I could give you a couple of my thoughts, but I don’t know if they're correct or not. But having said that, I think I don’t anticipate that same issue this year.
“Now, if you look at my record and the coaching record, we probably always got off a little bit slower and stronger as we go on.”
His first year, Pearson had to juggle coaching with learning new players, roles and teaching a completely new scheme. That meant experimenting early games to figure out which role fits whom best.
“Part of it, too, is just finding out what you have and who your team is, and trying to play guys, maybe in some situations you don’t know yet,” Pearson said. “And I’m a proponent of trying to see what we have in games and go from there, give every chance so to speak.
“So, I don’t know if we will this year. I think we know a lot more about our team, and our players now when I first came in.”
The second year, the team chose to prioritize even strength play in practice early — but special teams would later come back to bite them. The Wolverines weren’t concerned with the power play and penalty kill early, because “it’s hard to get those things right off the get go.”
In addition to answering the special team concerns early this year, Pearson has gotten to know the team’s ins and outs. Time will tell if that will translate to live play in Pearson’s third season.
“I think it’s going to be a lot smoother transition in the start of season this year,” said senior forward Nick Pastujov, “as compared to maybe some other ones.”