Mel Pearson has only lived or worked in two different places since he was 18 years old.
Now 59, the Michigan hockey coach has spent his entire adult life either with the Wolverines in Ann Arbor or at Michigan Tech in Houghton.
After his playing career with the Huskies concluded in 1981, Pearson joined the Michigan Tech staff as an assistant coach and stayed in that role for six seasons. Pearson then caught the attention of legendary Michigan coach Red Berenson, who hired him as an assistant.
Pearson stayed with the Wolverines for 23 years, before he left to take his first head coaching role with (who else?) the Huskies. But six years later, Berenson retired, and Pearson was tapped to return to Michigan.
Sunday, for the first time in his tenure as head coach of the Wolverines, Pearson will face off against the only other college team he has ever known in the first round of the Great Lakes Invitational Tournament (GLI).
“Being an alumnus, I hope they win all their games, except for when they play us,” Pearson said. “I’m sure there’ll be some formalities and some ‘hellos’ and all that, but when the game starts, we have to find a way to beat them.”
With a season record of 6-7-4, Michigan is looking to the GLI as a springboard to the second half of the season.
But finding a way to beat Michigan Tech (10-7-1) won’t be easy, as the Wolverines are without sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes and sophomore forward Josh Norris, who are representing the United States at the 2019 World Junior Championships. Hughes leads Michigan in points with 20 and Norris is second with 19.
“We’re gonna be without two extremely good players, arguably our two best players and two of the best players in college hockey,” Pearson said. “It’s a great opportunity for someone else to step in and take over those minutes. I know we have some guys anxious and looking forward to doing that.”
With other players having to step up in the absence of Hughes and Norris, Michigan may have an element of surprise that will help when facing off against the Huskies.
Michigan Tech coach Joe Shawhan spent four years as an assistant coach under Pearson before taking over the reins when Pearson departed for the Wolverines, and he says he’s kept just about everything the same as Pearson left it. But Pearson took those same systems with him to Michigan, so the two teams play very similar styles.
“There’s familiarity with the way that they play, for sure,” Shawhan said. “(Pearson’s) gonna obviously have that same familiarity with us.
“What it comes down to is player execution, though, and trying to figure out ways within — knowing what we’re doing — ways to manage the game so that it tends to lend itself more to our strengths than their strengths, and they’ll do the same.”
Off the ice, the familiarity between the two coaches continues — Shawhan says he and Pearson have remained friends. Pearson’s coaching staffs tend to be populated by people he’s known for quite some time, and it seems that his friendship with Shawhan is just one example of that trend.
“(Pearson’s) a friend,” Shawhan said. “That staff, if you look at it, (Pearson), (assistant coach Bill Muckalt) who I worked with here, (athletic trainer) Brian Brewster who I worked with here, I didn’t work with (volunteer goaltender coach) Steve Shields but he’s from here and I know of him. He coached here with (Pearson) before I did. I follow them closely.”
The close relationship between both the coaches and the way their teams play creates an interesting dynamic when the two teams take the ice on Sunday. Every player’s role becomes more important, because each team knows roughly what the other side is going to do in any given situation.
And with Michigan hunting for wins to launch into the second half of the season, capitalizing on the vulnerabilities it knows exist is all the more important.
“They’ll know the vulnerabilities within the way we play,” Shawhan said. “We should have an idea of that against them within the systematic structure, with minor changes that both programs have made, but overall, it’ll be a bit of a chess match.
“But it comes down to player execution and breaks in the hockey game and things like that. It should be an entertaining game, two teams that try to play a very similar style. It should be a lot of fun.”