The most important event to happen to the Michigan hockey program tomorrow may not happen in Sault Ste. Marie, where the Wolverines will take on Lake Superior State, but at a place where most people don’t know college hockey exists – Park Ridge, Ill.

This is where the Big Ten – not the NCAA or the CCHA – will decide the fate of Eric Werner tomorrow morning. Werner has been declared academically ineligible by the conference.

While no one would comment on what rule specifically was in question, Werner said that it had to do with some personal issues he had at the beginning of the year, and that it’s not his fault.

“We’re confident that (the Big Ten) is going to make the right decision on it,” Werner said. “So all you have to do is be patient on it and wait until they meet. It’s out of my hands now.”

Werner’s loss would give Michigan just five experienced defensemen. It also would put a player with his leadership and warrior-like mentality out of the lineup.

“He’s a huge asset to our team,” said defenseman Nick Martens, who was paired with Werner. “Not only his talent and his awareness of what’s going on, but for a small guy, his presence and the leadership he brings to our team.”

According to Michigan assistant coach Billy Powers, who works with the defense, a rotation of five defensemen is actually preferable to a rotation of six defensemen because skaters are on the ice every other shift instead of every third shift. But if anyone goes down, a rotation of four defensemen would be a big problem. Michigan played with mostly four defensemen during the last five games of the 1998 postseason, when the Wolverines won their last national championship. But that was with the help of senior goaltender and future NHL All-Star Marty Turco.

“When you get down to four defensemen, then you really get down to trouble,” Powers said. “If we had to play four, that would be a very, very difficult challenge for our defense.”

If Michigan did lose another player, it could also mean more playing time for Reilly Olson. The sophomore played a minimal amount during the Western Michigan series, but did not step onto the ice in October and November. Powers felt that if either Olson or David Wyzgowski, who could move back from forward as he had earlier in the season, were put onto the ice, they could be at a big risk.

“If (one of them) makes the mistake that costs your team the game, if he ever had a chance to get confidence, he’s not going to get it,” Powers said.

Everyone in the program is hopeful that it will not come to that, but for now, it’s just a waiting game.

“We’ll hope (Werner) will be approved, but if not, it’s a dead issue,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said.

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