There’s just one word to describe the dead week before the Michigan hockey team’s trip to the Frozen Four – excitement.
No current Wolverine has ever played this late in the season. That makes the final weekend even more special for the team’s two seniors, captain Kevin Porter and alternate captain Chad Kolarik.
And with nearly half the team made up of freshmen, many of the rookies are surprised they clinched a berth in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
First-year goaltending coach Josh Blackburn has been there before – just never from outside the goalie’s crease.
“I’m excited now and I’m not even playing,” said Blackburn, who played in back-to-back Frozen Fours in 2001 and 2002 as Michigan’s goalie. “It’s an exciting time, and it’s just that waiting period. You can’t wait for it to come, you can’t wait to get on the plane to head down there and you can’t wait to get started.”
Blackburn came to Ann Arbor in fall 1998, months after the Wolverines’ second national championship in three years. He was hired before this season to coach Michigan’s goalies.
Blackburn remembers well the week before leaving Ann Arbor for the Frozen Four. He recalls especially “feeling good every day” and having an extra bounce in his step.
“It’s pretty neat to see the guys experience what I experienced,” Blackburn said. “See them going through the emotions of it.”
But with all of that excitement comes a seemingly never-ending wait.
“It takes forever,” Blackburn said. “You just can’t to wait to get on a plane and go there and go play.”
Along with the break, the hardest part is the daily routine of practice, according to associate head coach Mel Pearson, who played in the 1981 Frozen Four as a Michigan Tech forward.
“For me personally, it’s tough to wait so long,” Pearson said. “You get a little nervous, you get a little anxious to play.”
The key for the coaching staff is not letting that translate onto the ice this week. While Tuesday’s optional practice revealed some rust after a couple days off, assistant coach Billy Powers said the team executed much better the past two days.
Michigan’s experience this season leading up to – and performing in – big weekends also alleviates some worries the coaching staff might have for a young team.
From the season-opening tournament in St. Paul to the College Hockey Showcase, the Great Lakes Invitational and the CCHA playoffs, the Wolverines have excelled when the spotlight has shone brightest.
“Just the combination of those experiences has been good for our team, especially with so many young players,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “I don’t think (the Frozen Four) will faze them.”
All they can do now is wait.