Last summer, Michigan coach Red Berenson named seniors-to-be Al Montoya, Jeff Tambellini and Andrew Ebbett the captains of the Michigan hockey team for the 2005-06 season.
On July 27, as expected, Montoya announced he was leaving the Wolverines to sign with the New York Rangers. The more shocking news came on Aug. 15, when Tambellini decided to forgo his senior season to play for the Los Angeles Kings.
“Montoya almost left the year before, so I had a feeling there was a good chance he was leaving,” Ebbett said. “But (Tambellini) was kind of a surprise.”
The early departures have left the Vernon, British Columbia native as the Wolverines’ lone remaining captain. Despite the losses, Ebbett does not feel he is carrying a larger burden on his shoulders.
“There’s still the same amount of pressure,” Ebbett said. “I’ve just got to do my job on the ice and everything else will work out.”
Leadership on the ice is only part of the job description for the captain. Setting an example in practice and the locker room is equally important. It is in this latter area that Ebbett’s value as a captain may shine the brightest, and he hopes his hard work rubs off onto his teammates.
“Oh yeah. Right off the bat that would be the first thing I want guys to take from me,” Ebbett said. “Just coming to practice every day, being prepared for the weekends and just that mental focus and a strong work ethic.”
That strong work ethic was just one of the characteristics that led Berenson to choose him to captain this year’s team.
“Ebbett is one of our most experienced and prominent players,” Berenson said. “He works hard, and I can trust him in any situation on or off the ice. So he’ll be a good captain.”
With the great teams Michigan hockey has produced, Ebbett has had quality captains to learn from in his first three years as a Wolverine. He came in as a freshman to a team led by forward Jed Ortmeyer, a two-time captain. Sophomore season, defenseman Andy Burnes wore the “C” for the Wolverines. Last year, it was forward Eric Nystrom. Along with being gritty players, those three were good teachers, and Ebbett was there taking notes every step of the way. Though he may not have been thinking about being a captain from the beginning, he knew he was going to be one of the senior leaders of this team before his time expired.
“I expected to be in my fourth year here,” Ebbett said. “But I don’t know if I ever thought about being a captain or not.”
Whether or not he thought about it, that day has arrived and Ebbett is ready to draw on lessons learned from previous Michigan captains to guide this year’s team.
“Keeping a positive attitude in the locker room is important,” Ebbett said. “I learned a lot from guys like Ortmeyer, Burnes and Nystrom. College hockey is kind of a game of momentum, and we talked about that this week. We just want to get off to a good start this weekend.”
Perhaps one of Ebbett’s best qualities that will serve him well as captain emerged as a result of one of his worst weeks as a Wolverine. In early January of last season, Ebbett played an uncharacteristically poor series against Western Michigan, making costly mistakes and looking to score instead of playing team hockey. At the next Tuesday’s practice, he was greeted with an unfriendly color A– black. The black jersey was placed in his locker, letting Ebbett know he would not be playing the following weekend.
“I remember walking in and seeing that in my locker for the first time,” Ebbett said. “I immediately knew I wasn’t playing.”
While no one questioned Ebbett’s effort, his head did not appear to be in the right place.
“I was still trying hard – maybe too hard – but it just wasn’t going for me,” Ebbett said. “I was starting to worry more about scoring goals than playing defense and what was best for the team.”
Angry and frustrated, Ebbett entered practices that week determined to turn things around. After sitting out the weekend’s series against Alaska-Fairbanks, he returned to game action the following week and tallied 11 points in the next 10 games.
“That really helped me personally I think,” Ebbett said. “When you look back on it – it was definitely a character builder.”
Having a weekend to clear his head helped Ebbett a lot last year. Now, it may benefit the entire Michigan team this year. The experience will make him better equipped to relate to his teammates, and he can draw on personal experience to help them get through their struggles.
“It’s something I will be able to extend to the freshmen this year,” Ebbett said. “Even with the older guys, it’s something I’ll be able to relate to for the entire year.”
Ebbett is also aware that any good team needs a steady leader to make it through a long and grinding season – just one more tip he picked up from a previous Wolverine captain.
“Guys like Ortmeyer especially, just the way he brought it to the game every weekend and was consistent,” Ebbett said. “I think that’s one thing that I’m really trying to work on is being consistent game in and game out.”
Ebbett’s ability to provide a steady hand as captain may be more important this year than for previous Michigan squads. Though Michigan enters the season as the defending CCHA champions, it is conference rival Ohio State that has been receiving the preseason hype. The Buckeyes are currently ranked third in the nation, while the Wolverines are slotted at eighth – the first time in eight years they have been left out of the preseason top-five. On top of that, the Wolverines turn over half of their roster with 11 freshmen on the 23-man team – increasing the chances that they will be leaning on their captain. Ebbett is embracing the challenge. Despite their youth, he has nothing but confidence in his teammates.
“I expect the same as the last three years I’ve been here,” Ebbett said. “CCHA regular season championship, playoff championship and then on the way to the national championship.
As a freshman, Ebbett saw Minnesota knock out Michigan in the Frozen Four in overtime. The following year, Michigan came up a game shy of making the Frozen Four, losing to Boston College in overtime. Last year the Wolverines let a 3-0 lead slip away to Colorado College, as they again came up one game short of the Frozen Four. These tough losses have fueled the captain to finish off the season stronger this year.
“We’ve had chances in the last two years where we should have been in the Final Four, and we’ve kind of blown it or let it slip away,” Ebbett said. “That’s something we’re really going to work on this year – finishing off teams.”
Ebbett will take the ice as the captain of the Wolverines for the first time in a regular season game this Friday against Quinnipiac at Yost Ice Arena. If he is able to provide steady leadership on and off the ice throughout the year, Michigan will be in the race to defend its CCHA championship and make a run in the NCAA tournament. As is the norm for the Wolverines, the team goals have been set as high as possible.
“It will be a good season for this team if we bring home that CCHA championship and go to the Frozen Four,” Ebbett said. “Especially for us seniors, we want to win our last game of the year. That is our goal right now.”