An hour after an uncharacteristically bad practice last week, junior forward T.J. Hensick was on the ice alone. He ran sprints up and down the rink and worked on his shotA- – all because of a poor showing that day. Providing an example of hard work, like this after-practice workout, for the abundance of young players on this year’s team is just one part of Hensick’s new role as an alternate captain – and the smooth transition from Hensick the player to Hensick the captain will help this year’s team immensely.
“I’m going to be looked at as more than just an offensive player,” Hensick said. “It’s being disciplined and not taking stupid penalties. The little things are going to be factors that the younger guys are (going to) look up at me for.”
As a player, Hensick was voted a first team All-American and was a consensus first team All-CCHA last season. He would have led the Wolverines in points for a second consecutive season had it not been for Jeff Tambellini’s late-season surge.
This season, at the annual CCHA media day, he was the lone unanimous selection on the preseason All-CCHA first team.
“T.J. is going to be a marked player,” Michigan coach Berenson said. “He led the league in scoring last year and for a team that’s playing Michigan they have to watch a player like that.”
But now the team relies on him to be at his best off the ice as well.
While Hensick was one of the younger guys on last season’s senior-laden squad, this year, he is one of just three players at the forward position with more than one year of experience. This has forced Hensick to take on more of a counselor role within the offensive ranks.
“It’s going to take 15 or 20 games for these freshmen to get acclimated to college hockey,” Hensick said. “But until they are acclimated, it’s up to myself and the other upperclassmen to take them under our wings and help this team get victories.”
In preseason practices, there is a noticeable difference from last season in Hensick’s behavior. He is always ready with a word of encouragement for the younger players on the team, and during the end of practice sprints, he is one of the first finishers. Hensick has embraced the new load of responsibility that has been bestowed upon him.
Not only is the team looking to Hensick for guidance, Berenson is hopeful that Hensick can provide this youthful team with enough leadership to make another run to the NCAA tournament. He believes Hensick is well equipped to step up into his new role on the team.
“T.J. has always been a key player for this team,” Berenson said. “So I think he will be comfortable with his new role.”
With losses through graduation and the NHL draft, Hensick is the only proven forward on the Michigan team. In his first two seasons, he could have a bad game and still count on production from players like Jeff Tambellini, Milan Gajic, Brandon Kaleniecki and Eric Nystrom. Although Michigan does have senior captain Andrew Ebbet, Kaleniecki and sophomore Chad Kolarik returning on offense, neither is as dynamic as Hensick.
The Wolverines also have a solid freshman class surrounding Hensick, but it is too early to guess whether they can withstand the rigors of college hockey. All that being said, Hensick knows he cannot do it alone.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a one-person show,” Hensick said. “We got some freshmen, like Cogs (freshman Andrew Cogliano), with some skill. Hopefully things will pan out for him. These other freshmen need to pick up the slack because we don’t return many guys. I think it’s going to be the collective group picking up for the loss of Jeff and the senior class.”
In Cogliano’s case, Hensick has already been using his new leadership skills. Because they are both quick, playmaking forwards, Hensick has been giving Cogliano advice.
“I spend a lot of time with T.J.,” Cogliano said. “I work out a lot with him, so he and I have been talking a lot. He has been talking to me about the atmosphere at (Yost) and what he has done to succeed here. I’m going to take in all the advice he can give me and hopefully I can play like him in the games.”
Because of his success on the ice during his first two seasons, opposing teams’ scouting reports are geared to concentrate on Hensick. The extra attention directed at Hensick should create openings for Cogliano and the other Wolverine forwards. Hensick will be facing constant pressure from opposing teams’ top defensive pairings. It hasn’t fazed him the past two seasons, and he doesn’t think it will matter this year either.
“I expect a lot from myself,” Hensick said. “If that means I’m (going to) have teams put their top defensive guys against me, then it’s a challenge I’m looking forward to. I don’t expect to play any differently than my first two years here. If I’m a marked man now it’s just going to be more fun, more excitement and better competition.”
Despite the blind confidence, the fact remains that this is the first season in his time at Michigan where Hensick is the lone established scoring threat. At an elite hockey program like the one Berenson has built, the team’s best player feels a lot of pressure. This year T.J. Hensick is the best player, and the pressure to perform is hanging over his shoulder.
“I think there is going to be pressure that I put on myself,” Hensick said. “With my good friend Tambellini gone, there’s definitely a lot of offense that we have to make up for. In my game I need to step it up a notch. I’ve done that my freshman year and my sophomore year, and now I want to do it in my junior year. I want to be the guy this team looks to when we need the big goal.”
Those big goals should be easier to come by this season. Over the past two seasons the CCHA has been cracking down on penalties like holding and hooking. Hensick is a small, but quick playmaker on the ice. Because of his relatively small stature he can be thwarted with physical play by defensemen. But with the emphasis on eliminating illegal contact, Hensick should have more room to operate.
“The way the rules are set is that you can watch a player but you can’t mug him and you can’t be hanging on to him or grabbing on to him or hooking him,” Berenson said. “So, T.J. is going to get his chances offensively.”
With all the changes this Michigan team has already gone through, one would think expectations would be lowered. But Hensick has a firm belief in his ability to help the 11 freshmen that will be making their debut for the Wolverines this season. He knows that he cannot will this team to the NCAA tournament by himself
“I expect this team to be win the CCHA playoffs and get an NCAA bid,” Hensick said.
“Nothing has changed even though we’ve had some big losses. It’s a reloading situation. We lost some great players but I think we just reloaded. We got the guys here to have a successful season but it’s just (going to) come down to hard work.”
Hensick’s ability to lead will go a long way in determining whether the Wolverines can lead the way in the CCHA.