A whiteboard stood propped up against the home bench inside Yost Ice Arena.
The eager Michigan hockey team huddled around two players, who were drawing plays and drills on the board.
Usually soft-spoken and quiet, senior captain Mark Mitera shouted out instructions to his teammates, who then skated into four separate lines.
Mitera and junior alternate captain Chris Summers exchanged a laugh before following suit. Together, the two maintained full control of the productive captains’ practice.
But the leadership Mitera and Summers bring to this year’s squad wasn’t always a given.
Finishing what they started
Both Summers and Mitera were first-round NHL draft picks, and both could have left Michigan this past off-season to play professional hockey.
And while Mitera said gave the decision more thought than usual this summer, Summers said it was never a question in his mind.
“It’s kind of a no-brainer,” said Summers. “You come here to be a student-athlete, and the ‘student’ obviously comes first. It’s never been a question whether I would stay or leave. I’ve always been dead-set on staying.”
Both Mitera and Summers realize the significance of earning a degree from Michigan as well as fulfilling their commitment to the hockey program.
Mitera is just the second first-round draft pick in Wolverine history to play four years. Eric Nystrom (2002-05) was the other.
“They’re taking advantage of their Michigan time,” Michigan assistant coach Billy Powers said. “You only have four years, and it’s quick. You can’t get them back if you leave. … These kids have bought into that belief that you came here to finish four years and then move on, and more importantly get your degree. It’s just great for the young kids to see these examples.”
Michigan coach Red Berenson has long been a strong advocate for players staying four years and rarely thinks a player is ready to leave early. He has used Kevin Porter and Chad Kolarik’s success as seniors last year as an example for Mitera and his younger teammates.
“I stand for kids finishing school and becoming dominant players, becoming leaders, … and just doing everything they can at this level before they move on,” Berenson said.
Beyond loyalty on the ice, Mitera and Summers both chose to stay in Ann Arbor because of family and friends pushing them to earn degrees.
“We really value the importance of an education,” Mark’s father, Ken Mitera, said. “Mark has always been a pretty bright kid. … He felt personally that it was important to him to finish his degree, and whatever was waiting for him after that would still be there. I think he’s very comfortable with his decision.”
Mitera planned to be a biophysics major, a path he followed until this season, when he realized that upper-level labs would interfere with his hockey schedule.
Summers started as an architecture student and finished all the prerequisites until he was told studio time would conflict with hockey practice.
Needless to say, he chose hockey.
As a result, both Summers and Mitera are now enrolled in the General Studies program.
But it wasn’t just textbooks and lectures that drove the duo to stay in school — the college lifestyle was a big factor, too.
“Chris is really enjoying every minute — not just hockey, but he’s enjoying the campus life and his friends and classes. I think that’s what also helps to motivate him to stay in school,” said Lori Summers, Chris’s mom.
Extra ice time can’t hurt.
And with that reasoning, a few years of college hockey can only make a player better, growth Mitera and Summers have seen within their own games since arriving at Michigan.
Powers called each player a “shut-down defenseman,” saying Mitera in particular has developed into one of the top defensemen in the nation during his collegiate career.
Last season, Mitera recorded career highs in points (23), assists (21) and plus/minus (+30). He was named Inside College Hockey’s Defenseman of the Year and earned Michigan’s Vic Heyliger Award as the season’s outstanding defenseman.
“He’s bigger and stronger and has more offense to his game now,” Powers said. “He’s still a defenseman that we can rely on to put out on a 5-on-3 penalty killing or match against the other team’s best players. We’ll lean on him for 25-28 minutes a game this year.”
Mitera, who was named alternate captain midway through last season after posting near-flawless defensive stats, became a role model on last year’s young team. Often paired with freshmen defensemen, Mitera naturally became the backbone — and leader — of the entire defense.
Drafted as a defenseman, Summers skated on the blue line alongside Mitera last season. But his speed and playmaking potential has given coaches flexibility in where they line him up. Summers played 11 games at left wing his freshman year, and he returned to the position last season in Michigan’s December series against Bowling Green, where he scored a game-winning goal in the first game.
While the position isn’t unfamiliar, the timing is.
“The biggest difference is this is the first year I’ve actually started out as a forward,” Summers said. “It gives me time to adjust and grow with my line.”
In the first weeks of practice this fall, Summers has played on lines with sophomore Matt Rust, sophomore Aaron Palushaj and senior Travis Turnbull. Michigan has shuffled players around, trying to find the best on-ice chemistry.
“In all honesty, it’s not too difficult to adjust,” Summers said. “Offense is going to take care of itself, but different defensive responsibilities are probably the biggest adjustments. That’s stuff you can do off the ice. That’s meetings with coaches. That’s watching a little video here and there.”
Berenson and Powers both praise Summers for how well he’s made the transition this season. After the loss of last year’s entire top line — Kevin Porter, Chad Kolarik and Max Pacioretty — there was a clear void on offense.
“You don’t find many players like Chris Summers who can go both ways and contribute as well as he can as a forward and a defenseman,” Powers said. “He came in here and said, ‘If it’s best for the team that I play forward, put me at forward.’ He’s very unselfish and a complete team guy.”
The Phoenix Coyotes, who drafted Summers in 2006, see it differently.
“We had talked about where we see him as a pro and coming out of our camp this June, (and) we made it clear to Chris that we see him as a defenseman, quite frankly,” Phoenix Coyotes assistant GM Brad Treliving said. “We think with his game and his ability to think, we think his game really translates to him being a shut-down defenseman.”
Treliving said Summers is one of the organization’s “priority players” and will be monitored closely this season by the Phoenix prospect development director and other scouts.
But Summers doesn’t let the conflicting messages bother him.
“The NHL stuff really isn’t on my mind,” Summers said. “What’s on my mind is school and playing hockey for this school. I mean, there’s still a lot of time. I’m in no rush for anything. I’m just going to keep getting better at whatever position this team has me play.”
Summers said he talked to his Michigan coaches about the position change and that the move isn’t permanent. He will see how his performance and comfort level at forward stand about a month into the season.
“No matter where I play, I just try to work hard and have fun,” Summers said. “It’s a game. You have to have fun with it.”
Often soft-spoken, Mitera leads by example — teammates respect his work ethic and his tenacious defense.
Quick-witted and always looking for a laugh, Summers is the kind of guy who easily commands the attention of a locker room.
Together, the duo gives the Wolverines exactly the type of captainship they need.
“They’re a really good pair because they play off each other,” Powers said.
Watching the two players interact off the ice, it’s easy to see what Powers means. Summers and Mitera often exchange playful barbs, making fun of everything each other says.
That give-and-take relationship is evident on the ice, where the two have led captains’ practices for the Wolverines over the past few weeks. Though Mitera and Summers rely on different leadership qualities to guide the team, they both find effective strategies to gain respect.
“Mitera’s been a fairly quiet guy in the locker room throughout his career,” Powers said. “I think he would be classified clearly as someone who leads by example, not a rah-rah, cheerleading-type captain. He’s more vocal, but he still understands that what he does on the ice or off the ice carries more weight than what he says.”
Said Mitera: “You don’t really need to come up with the famous movie lines before you go out on the ice.”
Mitera’s father attributes his son’s modest personality to his upbringing. The 20-year-old senior has always been mature for his age. “(He has) a kind of quiet confidence in himself and in his teammates,” Ken said.
This description of Mitera could have characterized Summers in the past — when he was younger and quieter.
“We’re now seeing a side of Chris we never saw before,” Lori Summers said. “He’s got a younger brother who was always the class clown. We always laughed to ourselves but when the boys were younger, Patrick was always the cut-up and Chris was always the quiet one.
“I said, ‘Watch, someday, it’s going to switch.’ Sure enough, it did.”
The Wolverines don’t seem to mind the more outgoing Summers, either.
Powers said Summers has a special talent for relaxing his teammates. Between constant chatter and joking around, Summers can loosen up even the most intense players.
“I think it’s really neat that Chris and Mark really seem to balance each other out,” Lori said.
For Mitera and Summers, walking is not an option.
From skating in circles on the ice to zipping around Ann Arbor on mopeds and pocket bikes, the duo loves speed and adventure.
In a spur-of-the-moment decision on a lazy summer day, Mitera, Summers and three other teammates purchased motorized vehicles that resemble miniature motorcycles.
“Mine’s a pocket bike,” Mitera said. “Mine has more of a racing look to it, while the (other mopeds) have more of the classic look.”
Mitera and senior goaltender Billy Sauer have pocket bikes, and the two often square off against Summers, sophomore Scooter Vaughan and senior Travis Turnbull, who all have the more traditional mopeds.
“We’re kind of rival gangs because they’re more of the mopeds and we’re the sportsters,” Mitera said with a laugh. “It’s pretty intense.”
Said Summers: “We’re looking for applicants for our gangs.”
Though they may be rivals on the road, the two players seem more than ready to team up on the ice and lead the Wolverines this season.