This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.
Over the past two seasons, the Michigan hockey team’s roster eroded in front of the coaching staff’s eyes. The now-junior class was meant to be the foundation for the program’s return to glory.
But the class of 2009 has all but disintegrated.
Friday, 12 freshmen will don the maize and blue sweaters for their first regular-season game at Yost Ice Arena. There are just two seniors, one upperclassman defenseman and myriad questions about how good Michigan coach Red Berenson’s new largest freshman class can be.
How did the Wolverines find themselves in the midst of a rebuilding year two years ahead of schedule?
Associate head coach Mel Pearson and assistant coach Billy Powers, Michigan’s lead recruiters and team architects, have traditionally brought in large groups of freshmen every four years. Two seasons ago, Michigan welcomed 11 fresh faces, including phenoms Jack Johnson and Andrew Cogliano. Now, just six remain, a shift that prompted the Wolverines to draw in another big class much sooner than anticipated.
“A big class every second year – that probably won’t happen again,” Powers said. “We got to the point where, every four years, we were having a big class. It’s not a plan, but it’s today’s day and age in college hockey. It’s predicting who’s staying and who’s going.”
Michigan did its best to stay proactive after the inevitable early departures of Cogliano and Johnson. Johnson left for the Los Angeles Kings after Michigan bowed out of last season’s NCAA Tournament and Cogliano jumped ship last summer for the Edmonton Oilers.
“The Coglianos and Johnsons of the world – you try to predict that stuff,” Powers said. “They’re leaving for pro hockey, and you need to deal with that. You need to deal with the NHL Draft, and you need to deal with those guys leaving. And that’s OK.”
But the Wolverines couldn’t anticipate the loss of the four players who didn’t bolt for professional hockey.
Forwards Tyler Swystun, Zac MacVoy and Jason Bailey prematurely left Michigan to play in junior hockey leagues. Swystun and MacVoy stopped playing before their sophomore years, and Bailey left the team during his sophomore season.
And this summer, goalie Steve Jakiel’s last-minute transfer to Division III Curry College forced Pearson and Powers to find someone who could play behind Michigan junior Billy Sauer and incoming freshman Bryan Hogan.
Jakiel’s replacement was freshman Shawn Hunwick, the final member in this year’s recruiting class. Hunwick, whose brother Matt captained last year’s team, had already committed to play for a new Division III hockey program at Adrian College. But when Jakiel left, Hunwick called the Adrian coach and asked for permission to speak with Michigan coaches.
And with that, the freshman class was complete.
Hunwick may have fallen into Michigan’s lap, but this year’s class started three summers ago in the Wolverines’ backyard.
Ann Arbor native Tristin Llewellyn initially didn’t see himself playing college hockey.
“Back then, I was really interested in (playing) major-junior (hockey),” he said. “I had it all in my head I was going, and I even told Mel (Pearson) that. And then my dad found out and got really upset with me and made me call and apologize to Mel (to tell him) I hadn’t decided yet.”
The next summer, Llewellyn became the first of 12 to commit.
Fellow Michigan natives Matt Rust and Aaron Palushaj were also among the first recruits in the class.
“The way our program’s been over the last 10 or 15 years, we’re in a good spot – that (for) a lot of Michigan kids, their first choice is Michigan,” Powers said. “Most of the kids don’t leave the rink without making a commitment, whereas kids from New York, like (Kevin) Quick and, of course, (Carl) Hagelin from Sweden, you have to recruit them. But Michigan kids, you’re not as much recruiting as much as they’re just dying for you to make the phone call.”
To attract potential players who aren’t set on Michigan, the Wolverines sell their playing style and Berenson’s reputation.
“We play a style that most kids can get excited about,” Powers said. “We take pride in being one of the top offensive teams every year.”
If Michigan’s style doesn’t sway potential recruits, Berenson’s legacy certainly helps. But it’s not the players who are initially giddy over Berenson’s reputation – it’s the parents.
When looking at colleges with their sons, some parents are starstruck by Berenson’s 600-plus wins, two National Championships and nine NCAA Frozen Four appearances. And being a premiere player on two Stanley Cup championship teams during his 17-year NHL career doesn’t hurt his reputation, either.
“I think the kids get excited about what they’re hearing, but they’ve never watched him play or coach,” Powers said. “I always get a kick out of watching the parents around Red – they want to ask him questions about when he played, but I guess they don’t always feel comfortable doing that.”
Yost Ice Arena has become known as one of the toughest places in the country to play hockey, and it’s become a powerful recruitment tool. In recent years, Powers said the atmosphere at Yost has taken on “a life of its own.”
“It’s absolutely amazing,” Llewellyn said. “I came to one game before I committed here. (Michigan) played Michigan State and we beat them, and the place was just rocking.”
Though the freshman class was brought in to replace players who left, the large group will have serious scholarship implications for the future.
If the majority of the freshmen stay for four years, the Wolverines will have fewer scholarships than planned to give during the next few years. With just two seniors graduating, Michigan has much less room to sign potential talent.
Pearson said the Wolverines already have a few prospects in mind but agreed next year’s class will be much smaller than average.
The 12 newcomers have gotten off to a strong start. They’ve added a physical, gritty style of play to the traditionally offensive-minded team. In the first four games, three freshmen have already tallied three or more points.
“If this group works out, it really sets the tone,” Powers said. “If you ever keep them all for four years – who knows if that could ever happen – but if you do a good job with the big group, chances are that you’ll be very competitive every year that they’re here.”
Losing as many talented players as Michigan did could have set Wolverine title hopes back a few years. But if defeating then-No. 2 Boston College in the season opener is any indication, the Wolverines won’t miss a beat.