Tien Le: What it takes to win the National Championship
Mel Pearson woke up Friday morning reeling from a vivid dream.
It was a sight. The team and him, standing in Little Caesars Arena, hosting a trophy for all to see.
“I had a dream that we won the national championship in Detroit in front of 22,000 Michigan fans,” Pearson said, “and how unbelievable that would be, and how awesome it was.”
But dreaming is not a new concept for Pearson. He dreamt of becoming the head coach of Michigan Tech. Winning a championship with the Huskies. Coming back to coach the Michigan hockey team.
And he did just that.
Pearson went out and became a six-year head coach at Michigan Tech. He won a Western Collegiate Hockey Association and WCHA Tournament title. And he came back and became the eighth head coach in Michigan history.
Pearson knows better than anyone that it takes more than just wishful thinking to make a dream a reality. When asked last year, former player Quinn Hughes made sure to emphasize the process it takes to win a national championship.
“At the end of the day, as much as we talked about winning a national championship, you gotta think day to day,” Hughes said. “You can’t win a national championship today. It’s going to take six, seven months.”
And it’s true. You can’t build a national championship-winning team overnight. No one regular-season game will make or break the team. It’s a long process that spans months, and it’s contingent on a lot of multiple different factors. Pearson, having been there before when he assisted Red Berenson in winning two titles, knows exactly what it takes to get there.
He broke it down, and here’s what it takes to win it all.
Luck is a large part of the winning equation no one likes to mention. Partly because it’s hard to measure, and partly because it detracts from the result. But it is a factor.
Especially in a game like hockey, where there can be so many lucky bounces that decide a game, or lucky puck placements that swing momentum. You can see it during broken plays, like in Sunday’s exhibition against Windsor, when freshman defenseman Cam York tripped over himself and lost the puck in the defensive zone — a turnover that led directly to a Windsor goal. All he could describe it as was, “fluky.”
But the type of luck, or lack thereof, that the Wolverines struggled with most of all over the last two seasons was keeping everyone healthy.
In the 2017-18 season, the season Michigan made an unexpected Frozen Four run, Will Lockwood was forced to sit the second half of the season after obtaining a shoulder injury at World Juniors. As a high-impact player until that point, his absence hurt — even though the team made a deep run. Senior forward Jake Slaker believes if Lockwood was healthy, a national championship was a serious possibility.
The following year, a similar injury occurred, again, at World Juniors. This time, it was then-sophomore forward Josh Norris who was forced to sit due to a shoulder injury — at the time, leading the team in points. Additionally, then-junior defenseman Luke Martin broke his arm against Michigan State.
Injuries are a topic that not too many players like to linger on.
Even Lockwood was skeptical to talk about his return to full health, knocking on wood to ward off any chance of jinxing it.
But again, you have to be somewhat lucky to have a fully healthy team. The season spans seven months. With all the physicality and wear-and-tear of hockey, it’s hard to predict who catches the injury bug and who doesn’t.
“I know it’s the next man up,” Pearson said. “But sometimes you just can’t overcome that.”
And part of staying healthy plays into growth. You can’t grow as a player if you’re sitting on the sidelines, nursing an injury.
But you also can’t expect to have success if your players aren’t playing up to par. Pearson believes all the pieces of a championship team are there. Now the problem is just getting the pieces to fall into place.
“We have everything we need to have a chance,” Pearson said.
But he continued to stress the importance of his players’ growth as a key component of reaching championship potential. With the veterans, it’s easy to tell what you have or what you will eventually get. With the younger players with big roles, you’re betting a lot on where you think they’ll end up.
“Even Beecher and York, as high as they’re rated and everything like that, it’s a grind in the college hockey season,” Pearson said. “And you gotta make sure they continue to get better.
“But I believe your best players need a lot of coaching too, you just can’t ignore them.”
Trying to foster a competitive environment, the team has the type of depth where not every player will get to play, even if they deserve so. The cutthroat competition will inspire each player to work harder in practice, stay longer, be better.
And part of the process is going through Michigan’s tough non-conference schedule. Pearson’s been asked if he really wanted to start off the season having to face such loaded teams. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
He believes it’s a measuring stick. One that shows where you are, and an indicator for where you need to go.
To Pearson, it doesn’t matter what your role is. You can be a top-line forward, a top-pairing defenseman or the last player on the list of undressed players.
But the players have to show up every day or be held accountable.
If you show up and have a lousy practice or a lousy week, you’re letting your teammates down,” Pearson said. “You have to make sure you come and bring it every day. I don’t care if your our best player or maybe our 17th forward on the depth chart, you have something to come and push guys every day.”
Games will be lost. It’s inevitable unless a miracle occurs. But the ability to understand what went wrong, accept it and move on is what makes good teams great.
Last year, when Quinn Hughes committed two turnovers that lead directly to opposing goals against Penn State January 26, he pointed to himself and claimed responsibility. It was the first time all season he had publicly declared his faults, and the team, soon after, found any semblance of success — winning three of their next four games and losing the fourth by one.
“I think that’s the biggest thing is you have to have the accountability and that consistency on a day to day, week to week, month to month regardless of how the games are going,” Pearson said.
You hear it all the time. You have to want it, to get it.
Last year, Hughes talked about how the team discussed the prospects of a national title, but that his decision to come back ultimately put himself first, making sure he was ready for the pros. The team last year had individuals that put themselves above all else, and it showed. And all the preseason hype, the top-five national ranking, the high expectations, was for naught as the team disappointed, finishing with a sub-.500 record.
And the players, this year, took last season to heart.
Lockwood couldn’t even think about making a decision on whether to return or not after the season-ending loss to Minnesota. And when the time came around to decide, he listened to his heart.
“My heart was always here,” Lockwood said. “ And it’s kind of hard to turn down decision of something you dreamt of your whole life, but my heart has always been at (Michigan). Been in Ann Arbor.”
The team heard the criticism and kept it in the back of their minds. They had goals, ones they weren’t willing to share. But their expectations of what the team would be was important to them. And to make whatever they had in mind happen, every individual has to buy in. No one around the locker room cared where the other was from, where they were drafted, how touted they were.
“I can stand you up and measure how tall you are,” Pearson said. “And I can put you on the scale and measure what you weigh but a lot of times, you can’t measure a guy’s heart.”
If it was as easy as to just have those factors, every team would have a chance to win. But Pearson believes it doesn’t take the best team to win. It just takes playing the best, on any given night.
So when Pearson recalled a Thursday night’s sleep, he saw his team, maybe not the best in the field, but the one that played the best.
“You always dream about things. What you want. What’re you trying to achieve.” Pearson said. “Maybe it’s a dream, but dreams do come true.”
Le can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @tientrle.