Before the season, the NCAA modified its rules to allow players to direct, but not kick, the puck into the net with their skates.

Maybe the Michigan hockey team’s new pregame ritual is to prepare for this exact situation.

Prior to each contest, a group of about six players stands in warm-ups and forms a circle next to the rink. They proceed to kick a soccer ball, a lá pepper in baseball.

But adjusting to the rule change might be a secondary benefit of the new routine. The Wolverines’ primary motivation is to stay loose before games.

“It’s just fun to get the warm-up in and get the blood going,” freshman Chris Summers said.

The Ann Arbor native did the same drill as a member of the United States National Team Development Program under-18 squad in front of the Ann Arbor Ice Cube last year. Summers brought a soccer ball to the rink and introduced the ritual to the Wolverines at the beginning of the season.

At first, just Summers and senior captain Matt Hunwick partook in the routine. But, as the season has progressed, it’s grown to a company of five or six players.

“We like to think we are soccer superstars, but we’re not even close,” Summers said.

Defenseman Mark Mitera had never played soccer before Summers started the circle. He claims to have developed some skills just from kicking the ball before games.

Of course, soccer’s not for everybody. Defenseman Steve Kampfer is realistic about his chances of succeeding on the pitch – or even in the pregame circle.

“I’m pretty bad at soccer – I can’t even keep the ball up twice,” Kampfer said. “If I go in, I just headbutt the ball once and everybody tells me to leave.”

Junior Chad Kolarik, sophomore Travis Turnbull and alternate captain Jason Dest are some of the other players who join the circle.

Even though Summers has some ball-handling skills, he might want to hold off on his soccer dreams for now.

Right now, Michigan coach Red Berenson badly needs Summers on his blue line, a corps that is missing Dest (out a month with a dislocated shoulder) and might be without sophomore Jack Johnson for this weekend’s games.

In Saturday’s win over Western Michigan, Summers displayed the need for healthy bodies on defense, returning to the ice even after a hit numbed his arm.

“We got lucky,” Berenson said. “It could’ve been three (defenseman out) and that might have been too much.”

Summers is one of two freshmen, along with forward Brian Lebler, who have appeared in all 17 games so far this year.

The injuries to the rest of the defense could prove to be an opportunity for the younger defensemen. Summers views this as a chance for him and Kampfer to step up.

“It’s not like I have to fill anybody’s shoes, just keep playing the way I’ve been playing,” Summers said.

His game features plenty of speed, whether it’s on or off the ice.

On the ice, he uses his speed to prevent opponents from taking clean shots on goal. Off the ice, he pedals around campus on his bike.

Considering the health status of the defense, Michigan fans should certainly hope that he wears a helmet.

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