While preparing for Saturday’s exhibition game against the U.S. National Team Development Program, three Michigan hockey players eagerly await a package with championship rings.
Prior to arriving in Ann Arbor, defenseman Quinn Hughes and forwards Josh Norris and Michael Pastujov spent the past two seasons as teammates in the USNTDP. The now-freshmen skated for the U-17 and U-18 teams, the latter of which finished with a gold medal — and rings — from the 2017 U-18 World Championship in Slovakia. And in both 2016 and 2017, all three won goal medals at the U-18 Five Nations Tournaments.
Last year, Norris led the U-18 team with 51 points in 52 games and Hughes followed closely with 47 points — on nine goals and 38 assists — in 56 games. Their stellar résumés turned the pair into two of the highest-touted prospects to join the Wolverines this season.
And Saturday, they will lace up against the team that taught them to improve their skills, form lifelong friendships and gave them an opportunity to represent their country.
“It’s kind of like a homecoming,” Norris said.
Michigan will head 20 minutes east to Plymouth for the first time in its 18 years of annual meetings against the USNTDP, but this contest wasn’t supposed to happen in the first place.
Not originally on the regular season calendar, Michigan coach Mel Pearson decided to add the matchup to the open weekend between series against Ohio State and Michigan State. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
The Wolverines are coming off a two-game weekend in which they were outscored eight to three and swept for the first time all season at the hands of the then-15th-ranked Buckeyes. In its last six games — all against conference foes — Michigan has posted a 1-3-2 record.
Pearson cites a need to face the right opponent to get back on track, and he believes he picked the perfect one.
“I’m very happy that we scheduled it because we need a game to get that bitter taste out of our mouth and just to play,” Pearson said. “They’re a good partner. I enjoy the program, it’s a good game for us.”
Throughout what Pearson refers to as a “work week,” his icemen have taken that motto in full stride, displaying an intensity in practice that was lacking in Saturday’s 5-1 loss.
“They’ve worked hard and the energy level’s been up, especially when we don’t have much to look forward to this week,” Pearson said.
Added Hughes: “Back to the basics and work hard. Obviously, last weekend was unacceptable, so we have to start over. A new start, a fresh start, whatever you want to call it. We’re going to have a good five days of hard work here and then against the U.S. team. It’s just a good week for us to focus and get all our priorities straight.”
Though already focusing on the looming Spartan home-and-home series Dec. 7 and 8 — and a hopeful return to the win column in Big Ten play — the Wolverines can’t overlook the task at hand against the USNTDP, especially following disappointing results against Ohio State.
The developmental program targets and trains elite youth hockey players under the age of 18 for USA Hockey. Over the years, it has produced 47 Michigan players, including 10 current skaters — some of whom have played with present members of the U-18 team, making the game that much more personal.
“I think they look forward to it,” Pearson said. “Most of the guys that come out of that program really appreciate what it’s done for them and they really have a sense of nationalism. They really play up the ‘USA.’
“I think they have a huge appreciation for the program and what they’ve done. We’ve got to convince them ‘Wow, you’ve got to play hard and we’ve got to beat them.’ You’re friends until the puck drops and then it’s business.”
Hughes notes the impact on player growth and attention to detail as the main aspects that lead to players excelling in college and, eventually, professional leagues.
“I owe a lot to the program,” Hughes said. “The development there, you don’t get anywhere else. It’s the best in the world. You see how they pump out players every year — it’s ridiculous. It’s a business there and they treat it like a job. It’s kind of like pro hockey, so it’s really good for you to experience as young kids, so when you come to (college), you’re ready.”
Both Norris and Hughes believe there was a bigger adjustment from youth hockey to the USNTDP than from the junior league to the collegiate level — a true testament to the development team steering its players in the right direction.
And after playing 20 games against older and more experienced college opponents last season, the freshmen say the program helped them make an immediate impact in the Michigan lineup.
“I feel like that was my freshman year,” Hughes said. “I feel like this is my sophomore year right now and I didn’t notice a transition at all. They made it really hard for us there, so when I came here — not that they don’t make it hard here — it was a little bit easier.”
Added Norris: “Learning how to play with different players and becoming mentally tougher. It’s not the easiest the first year. You’re 16 and playing against 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds, so I think just finding ways to get through adversity and stuff like that. It’s a big deal to learn from that stuff and grow.”
Because of the team’s familiarity with the opponent, it would be easy to have a different-than-usual mentality in the locker room leading up to the game. But after recent setbacks, the team is approaching this weekend no different than any other.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of them over the years when I was here at Michigan and some years it was hard to play in them because you’re playing the high school kids,” Pearson said. “It’s a no-lose for them, but you’re expected to beat them. Sometimes you’d look past it, but not this year. I think because of the way things went last weekend and because of who we have the weekend after, it’s an opportunity for us to get our stuff together.”
Skating on the USA Hockey Arena rink in Plymouth for the first time since donning the USNTDP’s trademark red, white and blue sweaters — and mere days before Norris, Hughes and Pastujov receive their championship rings in the mail — will certainly be special for the three freshmen as well as the seven other players returning to their roots.
But even that — and the fact the exhibition doesn’t count toward Michigan’s overall record — doesn’t mean the Wolverines will take the game against the youngsters lightly.
“I played against Michigan last year,” Hughes said. “I thought it was a pretty big deal for me. I kind of know what those guys are thinking right now. I loved it last year, this year it’s probably not as cool, but it’s a game and we’re going to try 100 percent. It doesn’t really matter who we’re playing.
“I know all those guys and obviously I had a lot of good memories in that rink, so it’s going to be cool and I’m looking forward to it.”