Nick Boka and Joseph Cecconi found themselves at crossroads to start their junior years.
After dishing out 10 assists and finishing plus-17 as a freshman defenseman, Boka saw his production fall off a cliff the next year, scoring two total points. Beyond that, his confidence was shot. Those around him acknowledged his pedigree but Boka still knew himself that something wasn’t right.
With so much uncertainty, he faced a tall task as a junior. Fast forward to Senior Night last Saturday, and Boka skated around Yost Ice Arena, waving the Michigan flag proudly, completely sure of his ability and the culture he made.
Ask Boka how he improved, and he’ll point to one person in particular — Greg Harden. Once Michigan coach Mel Pearson and company took over, volunteer assistant coach Steve Shields sat down with Boka, and noticing his lack of confidence, directed him to the sports psychologist.
Though he was hesitant at first, Boka diligently met with Harden every week, honing in on different aspects of his mental game and bringing a more intense mindset to each practice.
“I didn't know what I was getting myself into,” Boka said. “And it’s honestly been life changing, I can’t thank Shields enough for setting me up with him. I can’t thank Greg enough. He’s been there with me through the ups and the downs every single week.”
At this point, those meetings don’t entail working on much. More often than not, Boka goes in and talks about whatever he wants to with Harden, hockey-related or not. Having that peace of mind, in the end, is how Boka found the confidence to step in as a leader, even before Michigan named him an alternate captain this season.
“Last year I tried to be a leader even without a letter on my jersey, and a lot of players did, which is why we had such a special team last year and why we did what we did,” Boka said. “ … There’s always going to be the voice in the locker room when someone thinks something isn’t going right or needs to step up. We have the ability to step up and talk to whoever needs to be pulling their weight.”
Cecconi helped build that air of accountability, too — albeit from a different place. Production wasn’t an issue for Cecconi. He was named to the USA World Juniors team during his sophomore year. When Red Berenson retired as Michigan’s hockey coach at the end of the year, though, so did the defenseman’s main reason for committing to the Wolverines.
As soon as he met Pearson, Cecconi went to work. Having been named an alternate captain, he worked with Pearson, captain Tony Calderone and the rest of the alternate captains to ensure that the Wolverines had their priorities set on hockey over anything else every day.
In turn, Cecconi became the team captain his senior year, but there was still a steep learning curve. When Michigan struggled to pick up wins this year, it forced the senior defenseman to become even more of a vocal presence in the locker room than before.
“It was not like I stepped in and was the best captain possible at the time,” Cecconi said. “I’ve learned a lot on how to be better. There wasn't just one instance, but it was gradually building up. I feel much more comfortable speaking to the locker room or on the ice.”
Boka and Cecconi had every opportunity to give up and quit — the Minnesota Wild and the Dallas Stars, respectively, drafted them in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL draft. Cecconi had the option to sign with Dallas last summer yet eschewed it for a chance to further define the culture he helped start. Likewise, Boka chose to come back to Michigan to see if he could keep that night-to-night consistency.
While it seems unlikely that Michigan makes that same Frozen Four run, Senior Night let the two leaders reap the rewards of their hard work for a brief moment before one final push.
“I didn’t think that I was going to get too emotional,” Cecconi said. “But it really hit me after the game when they were playing the tributes of Brendan (Warren) and Nick (Boka), then myself, I teared up a little bit. How did this happen?
“How did four years go by this fast?”