As Mel Pearson sits down in a plush, blue Michigan armchair in Yost Ice Arena’s media room, something is hiding under his trademark calm demeanor.
Pearson was collected like that last year, no matter the ups and downs of his inaugural season as the coach of the Michigan hockey team. Back then, nobody thought the Wolverines would be within miles of where they are today — it was supposed to be a slow march back to respectability, a gradual rebuild in the shadow of the retired Red Berenson.
Understandably, Michigan was unranked following a 13-win season the year before. Questions about whether or not forward Cooper Marody could stay healthy, if the front line could score consistently enough to keep the Wolverines competitive and just how long it would take for Michigan to return to prominence all loomed large.
And yet, Pearson and the Wolverines defied all of those modest expectations, doubling their previous win total, catching fire mid-season, rallying from a disappointing start to the Frozen Four and being seconds away from playing for a title. More than anything, that Michigan team started a new era. It wasn’t Red’s former team anymore. It was — and is — Mel’s team.
“Last year, that was the appetizer,” Pearson said. “We got to the meal, we’ve got the appetizer, and we didn’t get a chance to finish the full course. Now, we’re still hungry. We want to sit down and make sure we have that full course — and eat it.”
Questions, though, remain abundant even for a team that had the season that Michigan did.
Who will step up to replace last year’s departed “Run DMC” line of forwards Dexter Dancs, Cooper Marody and Tony Calderone, and their combined 122 points?
How long will it take the ten freshmen on the team to adjust to college hockey?
Will there be regression back to the mean after last year’s improbable run?
Can they do it again?
“No college hockey team has played a game yet, so nothing really matters,” said junior forward Jake Slaker. “They can talk about last year as much as they want, but every team has new players and new identities on their team, so we just have to play the way we want to play.”
For Slaker, Pearson and the rest of the Wolverines, a clear-cut recipe to success has emerged: just as they formed a new identity and style regardless of the past, they must do the same this year to replace the seven departures from the team.
Michigan won’t be sneaking up on anyone anymore — the United States College Hockey Poll has them as the No. 4 team in the country, and there’s a year of film for opposing coaches to dissect.
Behind the calmness, it’s obvious that Pearson is excited to continue building on the success of last year. While last season was, by all means, a taste to remember, it would serve Michigan well to cleanse its palate, christening Yost’s ice this year with a fresh outlook, while still remembering the joys of last season in the back of its mind.
One might say the Wolverines are ready for what's next on the menu.
Ratnavale can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @RianRatnavale