Billy Powers wasn’t ever supposed to put on a Michigan hockey uniform.
The Wolverines’ assistant coach grew up in Somerville, Mass., a brick-lined, working class suburb of Boston. During the early ’80s, as plants were shuttered and Somerville’s economy collapsed, Powers played for one of the nation’s premier teams at Matignon High School.
Half of his high school teammates joined elite college programs after graduation, but the top recruiters never came calling for Powers. Disappointed by the slight and with a chip on his shoulder, he headed to St. Anselm to play Division II hockey.
There, Powers turned heads with a spectacular season. As schools dangled offers following his freshman campaign, Powers faced an unusual decision. Michigan had called, offering him the opportunity to head west to play hockey.
Powers had never particularly wanted to leave Boston. None of his high school teammates had left the Northeast — Powers thinks the furthest any player traveled was to Colgate, in upstate New York — and practically no one he knew lived outside the Boston area.
Boston has a particular loyalty about it. The idea of being a Bostonian is glorified through pop culture, tough-guy stares and the city’s sports franchises. For many, it is hard to imagine living anywhere else. Fewer than 14 percent of people move from Powers’ county, Middlesex, in any given five-year period — among the nation’s lowest rates for large populations.
Kids from Boston just don’t want to leave Boston.
But in 1985, Powers got on a plane to the Midwest for a recruiting visit with Red Berenson. He hasn’t left since.
Thirty years later, you could almost say he is a Midwesterner.
“Was it planned? Absolutely not,” Powers said. “Just coming out here as a student-athlete was a pretty shocking experience for my family.
“My recruiting trip to Michigan, if it wasn’t my parents’ first time on a plane, it was like their second. East Coast people are pretty territorial. Most people don’t leave.”
The forward made an immediate impact for the Wolverines, netting 43 points in his first season. In the fall of 1985, shortly after his arrival in Ann Arbor, Powers told The Michigan Daily that his decision to play for Berenson was easy.
“Back East, I figured they had their shot (right out of high school), and they messed up if they wanted me.”
Today, Powers can laugh at the prideful 20-year-old kid. Because of that decision, though, he is still competing against the storied programs from back home. This week, Michigan will play the highest-profile away series of its young season at No. 10 Boston University. Powers will have 20-odd friends and family in attendance.
The battle he relishes most, though, is the fight in the recruiting trenches each season — one in which he’s a veteran.
When Powers joined the Wolverines in the ’80s, big-name recruits on the East Coast never thought about heading west to play hockey. Helping to bridge the recruiting gap is one of Powers’ most cherished accomplishments.
His story of moving away from home and taking a chance at Michigan lends him credibility with players and their families.
“You have to pick your battles,” Powers said. “I wouldn’t want to get in too many fights with (Eastern) schools over Eastern kids. But the prep-school kid, the Connecticut kid, the New York kid, somebody that hasn’t grown up in the greater Boston area — I think Michigan will always have a great chance no matter who we go against.”
The Wolverines have their first opportunity for a statement win this weekend. For Powers, it is only another page in his long relationship with East Coast hockey. Boston is still home and always will be. But Powers did make a final promise.
“(My family is) converted — there’s no doubt there,” he said. “My entire section will be maize and blue.”
From Boston kid to Michigan recruiter, Powers certainly found his calling.