Four seasons ago, 10 talented but unproven freshman burst onto the Michigan hockey scene and made an immediate impact.
Along with senior goalie Marty Turco, senior captain Matt Herr and senior Billy Muckalt, the young team raised many eyebrows as it captured the NCAA title.
Four years later the players are gone, but the team seems oddly familiar.
Michigan once again finds itself with 10 talented newcomers to replace the 11 departures from the previous season. The team has a senior goalie in Josh Blackburn, who will begin his fourth season as a starter. Once again, the team has a small senior class complemented by a strong junior class led by captain Jed Ortmeyer. And once again, the team will have several unknowns heading into the season.
“We think that we are in the middle of the pack like everyone else in the CCHA,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “I sense that we are a different team this year with different chemistry. I have no idea where we are going this year, but I think we will be a fun team to coach and watch. Night after night, it is anyone”s game.”
Considered to be one of the finest recruiting classes in Michigan hockey history, the Wolverines” freshmen will play a huge role in the team”s success this season.
Berenson is not afraid to put his young players in key situations despite their lack of college experience.
“I really like the freshman, I am impressed by their work ethic and I think they are fitting in fine,” Berenson said. “I know we will be faced with the possibility of playing three freshman forwards on one line, and I am not afraid of that.”
The freshmen are ready to accept the challenge, but are also being careful not to jump in too quickly.
“I knew how nervous I was before the first practice, but it made it easier to know there were nine other guys that nervous also,” freshman Eric Nystrom said. “Everyone”s bigger, everyone”s stronger, and everyone”s a little more experienced out here, which definitely makes the pace a lot faster. I”m getting used to it, each day gets a little better.”
“We”re a young team and young freshman class,” freshman Milan Gajic said. “I think we”re just going to take it one step at a time. The letter leadership on this team is excellent, and the supporting cast is there, which makes things a lot easier for us.”
Just as the senior Turco defended Michigan”s goal in 1998, the senior Blackburn will stand in net for this year”s Wolverines.
Berenson believes the play of Blackburn, last season”s team MVP will be central to the success of the team.
“I feel like I”m starting to find a groove and get back to where I was last year,” Blackburn said. “I just need to get the basics back and get into some good habits early.”
After working hard and rehabilitating all summer from a torn ACL suffered last season, Michigan junior and newly-named captain Jed Ortmeyer will make a much-anticipated return to the ice.
Ortmeyer showed signs of coming alive offensively last season, but was unable to return after suffering his injury in January against Notre Dame.
“This is an important year for me and I wanted to be 100 percent,” Ortmeyer said. “The knee feels great. I don”t even think about it anymore.”
Sharing the offensive load with Ortmeyer will be junior assistant captains John Shouneyia and Mike Cammalleri, who led the Wolverines in goals last year.
All three will have to perform well until the freshmen are able to come into their own.
Defensively, Michigan will be led by a pair of sophomores, Mike Komisarek and Andy Burnes. Last season, the two proved to be a dynamic defensive duo, and established themselves as top defensemen on the team. This season, Berenson is looking to them, as well as senior assistant captain Jay Vancik, to take charge at the blue line.
“I think the defense now is better than it was in 1998,” Berenson said. “Jay Vancik is a solid player and will be a steadying influence on defense. Burns and Komisarek are two young guys who I expect to lead the team defensively. It”s is not a very high profile defense, but I think it could be one of the strongest we have ever had here.”
Just as in 1998, the Wolverines have a thin senior class, made up of only four players. Besides Vancik and Blackburn, the senior class includes forward Craig Murray, and backup goalie Kevin O”Malley. The experience and leadership provided by these four will be invaluable for a team characterized by youth and inexperience.
The similarities between this season and 1998 even go beyond the simple make-up of the team. They also show up on the schedule.
For the first time since 1998 and only the second time ever, Michigan will host the NCAA West Regional Finals at Yost Ice Arena. This is just one highlight of a unique and difficult season that Michigan will have to fight through if it wants to stay at the top.
The team”s conference opener is going to be one of the most significant games in college hockey history.
Dubbed the “Cold War”, the game will be played against Michigan State on a rink built inside Spartan Stadium.
“When we come out of the lockerroom, it”s going to be really something,” said Michigan State head coach Ron Mason. This event exposes college hockey to a lot of people. The elements will be the same for both teams, I can”t predict anything, and I”m not sure what to expect.”
From the team to the schedule to the coach, there are many preseason similarities between this year and 1998.
Berenson is hopeful that his team will gel and find the magic that his 1998 team found.
“This year, we don”t have a Billy Muckalt, but we have a Mike Cammalleri. We don”t have a Matt Herr, but we have a Jed Ortmeyer.”
Still, until the first game is out of the way, it will be hard to measure how successful this team is going to be. In 1998, the young team went on to win the NCAA championship.
Could this be the sequel?
The “M” Cast
No.Yr. Name Pos
2 Fr Nick Martens D
3 Fr Eric Werner D
4 So Andy Burnes D
5 Fr Brandon Rogers D
6 Fr Reilly Olson D
7 Jr Brad Fraser D
8 So Mike Komisarek D
9 Fr Milan Gajic F
10 Fr Dwight Helminen F
11 So Joe Kautz F
12 Jr J.J. Swistak F
13 Jr Mike Cammalleri F
14 SrCraig Murray F
15 SrJay Vancik D
17 FrMichael WoodfordF
18 FrDavid Moss F
20 FrCharlie Henderson F
21 Fr Eric Nystrom F
22 FrJason Ryznar F
23 JrMike Roemensky D
24 SoDavid Wyzgowski F
25 JrMark Mink F
26 JrJed Ortmeyer (C) F
28 JrJohn Shouneyia F
29 SrJosh Blackburn G
31 SoJustin SpurlockG
34 SrKevin O”Malley G