Jon Merrill cracked a big smile at Michigan’s hockey practice on Monday afternoon.
There wasn’t anything in particular to get excited about — it was just ordinary warm-ups. The sophomore defenseman went through the normal drills, passing a puck back and forth with a teammate before taking a shot on goal.
The team was focused on the upcoming Ohio State series, but you couldn’t see any disappointment on Merrill’s face left over from the shootout loss on Saturday against Lake Superior State. For him, the weekend meant just one thing: his first time in a maize sweater since Michigan’s Frozen Four appearance back in April.
Merrill was suspended from the team at the beginning of October for an unspecified violation of team rules. In November, he was permitted to start skating with the team at practices again, but a timetable for full reinstatement was never specified.
After months of deliberation and communication between Michigan coach Red Berenson and Athletic Director Dave Brandon, Merrill’s suspension was finally lifted on Friday afternoon.
“It was all timing,” Berenson said of the decision to reinstate Merrill. “It was our athletic director getting back from the Sugar Bowl, Jon getting back from the USA program, and us getting all the information we needed to put together.”
Merrill spent the winter break skating with Team USA for the World Junior Championship. From Dec. 26 to Jan. 6, he was out of communication with anyone from Michigan.
That is, until approximately 1:30 p.m. on Friday, when Merrill got a phone call.
“When I left for World Juniors, (the possibility of returning) was still just indefinite,” Merrill said. “I got back Thursday night, didn’t hear anything. (I) finally found out I was playing on Friday (and) I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe it, because I had no idea.”
The first person Merrill called was his father, who was almost in tears at the news that his son would be taking the ice at Yost Ice Arena for the first time all season.
Merrill may have been out of action for two months, but he wasn’t forgotten. All Friday afternoon, teammates tweeted their excitement about having Merrill back in a Michigan uniform, and gave him countless well-wishes in the hours leading up to the game.
Michigan fans hadn’t forgotten him either — Merrill started his first shift on Friday with the Yost crowd chanting his name. He didn’t waste time making up for the 24 games he missed, tallying his first points of the year with two assists.
Merrill admitted to a few nerves during his first couple of shifts, but Berenson was never concerned about Merrill’s adjustment back to game mode.
“He’s a special player,” Berenson said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in him. I wasn’t surprised when he came back and fit right in. He’s been practicing with us the last six weeks, so he’s in sync with our team. Now (that) he’s back in the fold, he’ll be one of our top defensemen.”
Until the suspension, Merrill had never gone any extended period of time without playing hockey. He had been injured before, but even then he was still in the locker room and surrounded by the team on a daily basis.
Merrill was away from all of that during the first part of his suspension — and he didn’t know what to do with himself.
“As a hockey player, you love your routine, you love consistency,” Merrill said. “When I was out of my routine, it was weird. I didn’t know what to do not going to practice everyday. Now, getting back in the routine, going on the road this weekend, it’ll be fun.”
In the fall, there were rumors of Merrill bolting for the OHL in lieu of playing for the Wolverines. But now he claims that it was never a real possibility.
“I made a commitment to coach Berenson and the University of Michigan and I thought (staying) was the right thing to do,” Merrill said. “Not only the right thing for me as a person, but for the team, to stick it out and face the punishment.
“I’m glad I did, and I think I’m a better guy for it now.”
Merrill is hesitant to call himself the solution for some of the Wolverines’ problems over the past few months, but there’s little doubt that one of the country’s top-tier defensemen can have a huge impact on a team that’s faced its fair share of tribulations this season.
Berenson calls Merrill a “puck-moving defenseman,” and Merrill echoed those sentiments by saying he likes controlling the pace of the game and staying consistent night after night — all things Michigan has been struggling with.
During last weekend’s games, Merrill skated with junior defenseman Lee Moffie. Until Berenson decides otherwise, Merrill expects the pairing to remain the same.
But Merrill doesn’t like looking too far down the road, be it about his line-mates or whether he’ll stay at Michigan for a full four years. Today, he is nothing but grateful to Berenson and the athletic department for allowing his return to the squad.
“When you lose hockey like that, it really makes you think about the decisions you make off the ice that influence your hockey career,” Merrill said. “You never think things you do off the ice can take the game you love away from you so quickly.
“Now I’m in a place where I’ll do anything to keep playing hockey and I won’t make any mistakes like that.”