The Michigan hockey team was still on the ice when the decision was made, practicing for a Big Ten Tournament semifinal game that ultimately would never be played.
At that point, the Wolverines were unaware of the specifics but deeply aware of the possibility. They knew what was likely coming. They just didn’t know when.
On that Thursday — March 12, just over two weeks ago — Mel Pearson was on the ice running practice when he received word that he needed to be on a conference call at 3 p.m. He left the ice and headed straight upstairs to his office.
Pearson told the team they’d meet at 4 p.m. when he was done with the call and after they finished practice. He didn’t yet know the extent of what he’d have to tell them, though he had an inkling.
“I think we had all braced ourselves a little bit,” Pearson said. “Earlier in the day, we watched the basketball team come out (for its first Big Ten Tournament game) and then get whisked off and that was it. The night before, I’d watched the NBA stuff. Things were starting to happen real quick, so I think our guys had a little sense.”
While his team practiced one floor below, Pearson sat on a conference call with Athletic Director Warde Manuel and all of Michigan’s head coaches. Manuel, who had told the men’s basketball team the Big Ten Tournament was canceled earlier in the day, laid out the rapidly developing situation with COVID-19 and explained the Big Ten’s decisions.
“Warde Manuel let us know what was going down as far as they’re suspending all Big Ten play,” Pearson said. “And essentially, the Big Ten had also said even if there is an NCAA Tournament at this point, the Big Ten was not going to participate. That was it.”
That announcement came at about 3:15 p.m. The call continued right up until Pearson had to go into the locker room and tell his team the news.
The players had all showered and dressed after finishing practice and were ready to meet, then continue on with their normal routine. They still didn’t fully know what Pearson was about to tell them. They didn’t know that their normal, for all intents and purposes, was gone.
Pearson remembers still having his skates on when he walked into the locker room. Everything happened so quickly that he didn’t have time to take them off between practice, the conference call and the team meeting.
“When we told them, it was really hard to tell them and to look them in the eye, especially the seniors,” Pearson said. “Just basically tell them, ‘Hey, we’re done.’ Just the starkness of it. The raw words that come out like, ‘Season over. We’re done.’ ”
Michigan was one of the hottest teams in the country in the second half of the year, notching an 11-3-2 record and finishing No. 14 in the Pairwise — a ranking that had them in contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, something that seemed like an impossibility in November. The Wolverines moved in the Pairwise more than any other team in the country in the second half, up 22 spots between Dec. 26 and March 1, and rose even more after sweeping Michigan State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
In short, they were ready for an NCAA Tournament run. Then, in one fell swoop, it was all over.
“It was emotional,” Pearson said. “It was really hard. I’ve been in games, lost a national championship game in overtime and you have to go in the locker room and look at your guys, and that’s hard, but at least you had the opportunity. You gave it everything you had. You left it all out on the ice. Here, it’s like you never got that chance to finish what you started.
“ … We just had that hope we could get into the tournament. We were right there. Then you have a chance. Then all bets are off. And we had a group that could do it.”
Now, the players have scattered back to their hometowns, with just four or five still in Ann Arbor. The last time they all gathered together was in that locker room, the moment Pearson told them they were done.
“At that point, we just thanked them, told them we loved them, how we felt for them,” Pearson said. “But no words that I was going to tell them were going to make it feel any better. It’s just something that hopefully, over time, they’ll heal from.”