After 20 minutes, senior captain Kevin Porter realized he had seen this episode.

Dave Mekelburg
Senior captain Kevin Porter is expected to be “The Guy” for Michigan this season. (BEN SIMON/Daily)

Michigan trailed Minnesota, 2-0, after one period of the Ice Breaker Championship game.

As a Wolverine, Porter had never been on the winning end of the storied rivalry. In those four games, the Wolverines had been outscored 23-8.

Sitting in the locker room as the Zambonis circled the ice at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, a thought might have crossed Porter’s mind: He didn’t have to be there. The choice had been his.

The reality quickly set in. Michigan’s season ended with an 8-5 loss to North Dakota in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Minutes after that game, the fate of the 2007-08 Michigan hockey season lay in Porter’s lap.

Many of Porter’s best friends – seniors T.J. Hensick, Matt Hunwick, Jason Dest, Tim Cook and David Rohlfs – were graduating. They comprised the first group of Michigan seniors never to reach a Frozen Four since the class of 1991.

There was a hint of fear in Porter’s eyes as he reflected on the disappointment with reporters.

“I feel so bad for (the seniors),” Porter said. “It’s a bad thing, and, hopefully, we can make it (to the Frozen Four) next year. We’ve got a bunch of good guys coming in. We’ve got to get them to buy in right away, and I think we have a great chance of making it.”

The forward-looking message was there, but the conviction didn’t inspire confidence. Porter had a lot to consider.

As soon as the game ended, the early departures began. Porter barely finished talking with reporters outside the locker room before second-year defenseman Jack Johnson finalized his decision to jump to the NHL.

In the following weeks, Porter’s representatives were in contact with the Phoenix Coyotes, the team that drafted him in the fifth round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

“I don’t think it was anything serious,” Porter said. “Just conversations back and forth about what might happen.”

Porter downplays the discussions now, but after a spectacular junior season, it was easy to see why Phoenix expressed interest in signing him early.

Porter had a breakout season playing alongside Hensick and Rohlfs. His 58 points were the third most in the country.

But the doubters came quickly. Can Porter do it without Hensick? Was his success just a product of his teammates’ ability?

April went by quietly for the Michigan hockey team. The roster appeared to be set for the upcoming season.

At the season-ending banquet, Michigan coach Red Berenson named Porter the team captain. If Porter hadn’t gotten the message before, there was no denying it now. It was his team.

Then on May 2, Andrew Cogliano, who had been named an alternate captain at the banquet, signed with the Edmonton Oilers.

“I think it did hurt when Cogliano left,” said Mike Porter, Kevin’s oldest brother. “They thought they were going to be in this together.”

Cogliano was one of Michigan’s top offensive talents and was projected to be Porter’s center on the top line.

Porter said Cogliano’s departure didn’t factor in his decision to remain at Michigan or sign with the Coyotes. But it would have been hard to blame him if, at that point, Porter signed a contract and packed his bags, saying he wanted to leave on a high note.

“All along, I thought he was going to sign,” said senior alternate captain Chad Kolarik, Porter’s lone classmate. “That might have been the best move for him, but I totally respect that he’s back here, and he wants to win the National Championship as a captain. Everyone follows his lead because of that. Everyone respects that he really could be in the NHL right now.”

In July, Porter and Kolarik, also a Coyotes draft pick, went to Phoenix for the team’s prospect camp. It was a chance to show off his talents and meet one of the world’s greatest hockey players, Coyotes’ head coach Wayne Gretzky.

Porter was in Phoenix for a week, and it was there he announced his intentions to return to Michigan for his senior year.

Though Porter downplays the chances he would have left early for the professional ranks, many were relieved to hear him officially declare his position.

“I know Phoenix wanted him to leave,” Berenson said. “I think Kevin made a wise decision in not leaving.”

There were a number of factors that went into that decision, Porter said. He didn’t stress any, but two stood out when he talked about his thought process this summer. The first was getting a degree.

“Hockey has been a big part,” Porter said. “But also graduating and getting a degree from here was a big part of why I came.”

Porter’s family also noted the importance of academics in his decision to return.

Mike, who played at Michigan State, knows how tempting pro hockey can be to elite college players, but stressed the choice wasn’t as straightforward as the NHL vs. Michigan.

“It’s not, ‘I want to play in Phoenix or at Michigan,’ ” Mike said. “It’s Michigan or pro hockey.”

In other words, there’s no guarantee of playing in the NHL right away.

Hensick was another reason Porter decided to come back for his senior season.

Like Porter, Hensick could have signed a pro contract after his junior year, and many expected he would. But the Hobey Baker hopeful came back for his final season to win a National Title and get his degree.

It proved to be a good choice. Hensick was a force in college hockey, leading the nation in scoring and was named an All-American.

“I think Kevin was influenced by T.J. (Hensick) coming back and Rohlfs and watching them have huge years,” Berenson said. “You can see that’s only going to help them in their pro careers.”

Said Porter: “Just seeing him come back and just pretty much dominate college hockey was a big influence. It’s something I’d like to do: Come back, be the captain of this team, lead this team like he did.”

Hensick is confident Porter can do as much and more than he did in his senior year.

The Colorado Avalanche prospect also has a response to those who claim Porter’s success was merely a product of Hensick’s ability.

“You could say my points were only accumulated because of what he did on the ice,” Hensick said. “He’s probably the best two-way forward I’ve ever played with.”

With his decision finally set in stone, Porter returned from Phoenix, took a week off and then set about proving he could do it on his own. It was his time to lead.

Fortunately, that’s something Porter is used to.

“He’s been a captain on pretty much every team he’s ever played on, from Pee-Wees on up,” Mike Porter said.

Kevin isn’t a loud or imposing presence off the ice, but his skill and work ethic set him apart on the sheet.

During his sophomore year at Michigan, Porter was named the captain of the U.S. National Under-20 team when it competed at the IIHF World Championships in Canada.

But being the captain of this Michigan team promised to be Porter’s greatest challenge.

With the departure of Johnson, Cogliano and last year’s senior class, the 2007-08 Wolverines have 12 freshmen and just two seniors.

Despite the monumental task, Porter has risen to the occasion.

While past recruiting classes have often acted as separate groups, Porter made sure this year’s team wouldn’t be four cliques, but one team.

Porter, Kolarik and other upperclassmen spent time with the freshmen in their dorm, helping to establish a quick and comfortable rapport with the newcomers.

“I think that’s why he’s such a good leader,” Kolarik said. “He’s just a regular guy. Even around campus. He’s not cocky – he’s confident.”

From the first day of captain’s practices, Porter made sure everyone was putting in the hard work necessary for success.

“We’ve got to rely on defense more this year,” Porter said. “We’ve got to come ready to play every game. Last year, we didn’t play all 60 minutes every game. It kind of hurt us in the end.”

Even if Porter doesn’t put up individual numbers equal to last season’s, he can still improve his NHL prospects by leading Michigan in ways that can’t be calculated quantitatively.

“This year is going to be very important for him to be ‘the guy,’ ” said Brad Treliving, the assistant general manager of the Phoenix Coyotes. “It’s a different situation when there are expectations, responsibility and authority given.”

Trailing 2-0 to Minnesota going into the second period, it didn’t look like Porter’s attitude or intensity had done much to change the Wolverines. It looked like just another season of surprising wins followed by deflating flops.

Porter could’ve seen the pattern and resigned himself and his team to that fate. But he returned to lead, so he went out to start the second period looking to prove it was the appropriate choice.

Porter skated to center ice, took the faceoff and spent the next 45 seconds proving he was in the right place.

“Being down 2-0, we wanted to have a big shift, get it in their zone, get a couple hits and then get a couple chances,” Porter said after the game.

Michigan did just that. Although Porter’s line didn’t score on the shift its energy revitalized the Wolverines. Michigan clawed its way back into the game before falling just short in a 4-3 loss. It was the closest game against Minnesota since Michigan lost 3-2 in overtime in a 2003 national semifinal game.

In four games thus far, Porter has three goals and four points, and, more important, his young team is off to a 3-1-0 start.

With continued hard work and solid leadership, Porter hopes to lead Michigan back where Hensick, Hunwick and company never could: the Frozen Four. If he does, he will have led a team that exceeded expectation like few before him.

Few would question his decision at that point.

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