Imagine if current freshman quarterback Matt Gutierrez got to duel against John Navarre at Michigan Stadium his senior year of high school, or if Daniel Horton played in Crisler Arena last season against Bernard Robinson and LaVell Blanchard.
That may sound impossible, but it happened for two future Michigan hockey players on Friday. As members of the United States National Team Development Program Under-18 Team, Mike Brown and T.J. Hensick went up against their future teammates. Brown, Hensick and Matt Hunwick – who is on the U.S. NTDP U-18 team but did not play because he was recovering from a gash in his leg left by a skate – have all committed to Michigan next season but have yet to officially sign a letter of intent. So there were some awkward situations on the ice Friday night.
“There was a little of ‘nice hit,’ and ‘nice play’ and ‘we’ll see you next year,” Brown said. “There was a lot of just joking around.”
While these players have yet to be officially initiated into the Michigan program, in some ways the initiation began on Friday night. Their squad was blown away by the Wolverines’ speed and athleticism even though the team tied Yale and lost to Michigan State by just one.
“This is the best college team we’ve played all year,” Hensick said. “We thought Yale was pretty good, but these guys were much better and much faster than we expected.”
But for the U.S. Under-18 Team, everything is a learning experience. Selected as the best players in their age group in the United States, the players in the program move away from home to live with host families in Ann Arbor. As members of the U.S. Under-17 Team last season, all three future Wolverines played in the North American Hockey League against 20-year-olds. This season in the program’s U-18 team, they are playing a number of Division I college teams including, Minnesota and New Hampshire.
“I consider this year my freshman year,” Hensick said. “I’ve got 28 college games on my schedule, which is huge. Hopefully, I can step in next year and be an impact player.”
Brown and Hensick also got to play one period against their former teammate, Al Montoya. Montoya played with the U.S. Under-17 Team last season before receiving the opportunity to start in net for the Wolverines this year, so Friday night’s game was for some bragging rights. But Team USA was only able to muster two shots on goal before Noah Ruden replaced Montoya to start the second period.
“We’re going to hear about the shutout for a while,” Hunwick said.
For now, the three are partaking in the grueling schedule, which includes more than 60 games that they hope will make them ready to make an impact next year.
“You come into the season and you’re ready to go,” Hensick said. “Then a couple months go by and you have a practice on a Wednesday that’s about four hours long and you’re tired and you’re grueling and you just don’t want to do it. But you know by the end of the season it will pay off, because it will just help you become a better hockey player on and off the ice”