In sports, positive messages about resilience and perseverance have become the staple of struggling teams.
Yet such optimism often falls short. Out of all the teams that pledge to stick with it, trust the process, work hard and improve each day to make a midseason comeback, only a handful will see such promises come to fruition.
With such positive statements, it can be hard to accurately predict how a team will actually respond. It’s difficult to separate fact from fiction, hard to know who’s just talking and who genuinely believes that they’ll change their fate midseason.
Looking back, though, brings the necessary clarity. And it’s now crystal clear that there was truth behind Mel Pearson’s optimism during the Michigan hockey team’s early season struggles.
It was a Monday in mid-November, late afternoon. Practice had ended a short while back, and Pearson sat down in a dark blue, leather chair in the lobby of the hockey offices at Yost to field questions from a group of reporters, as he often does.
There was a certain element of repetitiveness to the ensuing conversation. For the third weekend in a row, Michigan had widely underperformed its expectations. The Wolverines had just been swept by Michigan State, including a home loss in which they blew a two-goal lead. They were on a seven-game winless streak that began in Kalamazoo against Western Michigan. Through three weekends of conference play, Michigan had tallied just one out of a possible 18 points.
“For the most part, they’re playing pretty well. And it will come,” Pearson said that day. “There’s two ways you can go. You can just feel sorry for yourself, you can sulk, you can start complaining. … Or you can just continue to work hard, continue to support each other and just trust in the process. They’re the latter.”
Pearson went on to cover the importance of focusing on things you can control. The weather that Monday was quite pleasant. The sun shined brightly, bringing a blanket of warmth atypical of a November day and providing the coach with a perfect example to further explain his mantra.
“You guys can’t control the weather out there today, right?” Pearson asked. “Did you call somebody out and say ‘I want a sunny day today’? No, you can’t … There’s so many things you can’t control.”
He mentioned that attitude is controllable, though, and that the Wolverines would just have to stay positive and avoid complaining.
“I’m going to be different and have a good attitude,” Pearson said. “And know that the sun is going to come out at some point for us, and when it does it’s going to be beautiful.”
Michigan’s recent success would’ve seemed somewhat unfathomable earlier this season. The Wolverines are coming off two stellar weekends on the road, in which they swept then-No. 14 Notre Dame and earned five of six points against then-No. 6 Penn State.
To Pearson, it has been a gradual comeback. It started with the three series following the one against the Spartans in November. Michigan split all three — against New Hampshire, Wisconsin and the Nittany Lions — and started to find its footing.
Now thinking back, Pearson can bring perspective to his team’s rebirth and why he believed in it during the tough times.
“You know as a coach,” Pearson said this week. “You know when you have something and you’ve got a chance and some things are just working against you. And you know when you are just horse shit, when you have no chance.”
The Wolverines are finally playing with some moxie. They’ve convinced themselves that this is who they truly are and this is what they’ve always been capable of.
Through Pearson’s eyes, the team that suffered the rough stretch early on was still scrambling to find its identity. Now, Michigan has found that identity in its defense.
“That’s the bread and butter. And I told the team after the Friday night game at Penn State, ‘Hey I’m happy about the six goals, but what I really like is the goose egg, the zero,’ ” Pearson said of the 6-0 victory. “Because some nights as we’ve seen in the first half the puck is not always going to go in for you. But if you play solid defensively and don’t give anything up then you’re going to be right there. You’re going to be in every game and we have been. I think that’s the foundation on which you build upon.
“They’ve bought into that now. They understand that.”
Now for the Wolverines, it’s all about maintaining that success through the remainder of the regular season to help their postseason aspirations.
“I’m not going to say we’re going to run through and go 8-2 here in the second half, but we have a chance,” Pearson said. “We have a chance to win every game, and that’s all you can ask for.”
In other words, Pearson is staying positive as before. The past two weekends justify that, little by little. It paid off the first time.
Maybe, just maybe, the sun will come out again.