Puck after puck flew full force at the boards surrounding the rink at Yost Ice Arena.
Standing a few feet outside the glass, Michigan freshman defenseman Brandon Burlon couldn’t even hear himself think.
“You guys are killing me,” he yelled out to his teammates, cheeks flushed.
Moments later, while he was answering questions in one of his first interviews as a member of the Michigan hockey team, a teammate jokingly slammed Burlon into the wall.
“It’s been really great getting to know the guys individually,” Burlon said. “It’s not like they separate you from the group or leave you out. They always try to include you and make you feel welcome.”
Sometimes, that means the veterans shoot pucks at rookies or playfully push them around.
For the five newest Wolverines, the transition to collegiate competition has been challenging, yet expected.
“It’s definitely different, because everyone’s bigger and stronger now,” freshman forward Robbie Czarnik said. “Everyone’s faster. It’s different from playing on teams where everyone was the same age and relatively the same weight. It’s an adjustment, but it’s not that big of a deal.”
The five freshmen took different paths to Ann Arbor, but each has taken a route traveled before. And every player was brought here with high expectations.
“You never know how a player is going to play at this level,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “There are some hopes. We recruited them with hopes.”
Czarnik and forward David Wohlberg, who have been teammates for the past six years, played for the U.S. National Team Development Program last year, and both first skated at Yost against the Wolverines in an exhibition game last January. The annual contest showcases some of the best local talent, and often NTDP players are recruited to play for Michigan. Nineteen Wolverines have been involved in that program since 1999.
Defenseman Greg Pateryn played high school hockey and spent last year playing for the Ohio Junior Blue Jackets, a team in the U.S. hockey league.
Forward Luke Glendening came to Michigan after spending a fifth year of high school as a postgraduate at the Hotchkiss School, a boarding school in Connecticut. A three-sport athlete, Glendening has excelled on football fields, baseball diamonds and ice rinks. But he followed his passion to Michigan, where he was offered a walk-on spot.
Burlon, a Nobletown, Ontario native, traveled south to Ann Arbor after two seasons in the Junior ‘A’ Hockey League. Burlon followed the path of sophomore forward Louie Caporusso, who he played with two seasons ago, from Ontario to Michigan.
“I was in close contact with (Caporusso) the whole time I was being recruited here,” Burlon said. “He kept telling me how great it was here, and how much fun he was having, and aside from the fun and how exciting it all is, he told me about how much he learned even in the first two weeks by being around the older guys, like Kevin Porter and Chad Kolarik and the coaches.”
Czarnik said he also looked to a current sophomore, forward Matt Rust, who played in the NTDP before he came to Michigan.
The freshmen have already picked up a lot from the upperclassman leadership of this year’s team, including senior captain Mark Mitera and junior alternate captain Chris Summers.
Berenson hasn’t seen the freshmen play much so far, because of rules regarding practice schedules before the start of regular season play, but Berenson said he likes what he’s seen.
“Those kids definitely belong here,” Berenson said. “As for their roles, we’ll see how they develop…(The) team is changing every year, even if the faces aren’t changing.”
Burlon said the retreat the hockey team went on two weeks ago was a great bonding experience. Between trust-building activities on the ropes course and late-night talks, the players became close before the start of the demanding season.
Being on the same page off the ice is just as important as an on-ice relationship.
“Guys know their place in the room,” Burlon said. “As freshmen, we obviously do. ‘Get some tape, get this, get that.’ But (the upperclassmen) look out for us and try to include us. There’s a time and a place for everything, and they tell us what those times and places are, so we feel like we’re a part of the group.”