It’s just not fair.
In the first weekend of a senior year that he didn’t have to stay for, Michigan hockey captain Mark Mitera had to be helped off the ice, perhaps never to play again.
“He’s the consummate student-athlete — one of those top students who’s also a top player,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said at CCHA Media Day last month. “These are the kind of kids that the CCHA should be proud of — the kids that stay and graduate.”
Mitera, just the second first-round NHL draft pick to stay four years at Michigan, returned for the reasons Berenson constantly preaches. He shunned the Anaheim Ducks, the NHL franchise that holds his rights, multiple times, turning down a chance to sign his way into the NHL. He did it to earn a degree, to captain a young team, to develop as a player.
And Friday, in the first period of the season, he went down with a “severe” knee injury, according to Berenson, possibly ending his college career less than 20 minutes into his senior year. Berenson said a more precise timetable for his potential return would be determined in the next two weeks as surgery is discussed.
Mitera stayed for all the right reasons — and got unlucky.
“It’s unfortunate, but you never know you’re going to get hurt,” former Wolverine Chad Kolarik said yesterday. “He took his chance. He’s going to get his degree, and you can’t take that away from him.”
Kolarik, who graduated last year after staying four seasons, remained upbeat about Mitera’s time at Michigan.
“I still think it’s a success story,” he said.
Yes, it’s still a success story for Mitera, who will earn his degree. And yes, it’s still a success story for the four-year approach Berenson has nurtured at Michigan.
But the reality is, Mitera will be the newest in a long line of examples agents use when they push athletes with tantalizingly high potential to leave college early and sign a pro contract.
The sight of Mitera falling to the ice could have a huge impact on a very talented sophomore class. When Aaron Palushaj (a second-round pick), Louie Caporusso (third-round) and Matt Rust (fourth-round) are deciding whether to stay or leave for the NHL, they’ll have seen what happens when you stay an extra year and things don’t work out.
The examples of Kevin Porter, T.J. Hensick and Matt Hunwick having career years as seniors won’t be the only examples that come to mind. They’ll have witnessed the other side of the “why to stay” pitch.
And that means, even if Mitera never gets to skate in Yost again, the example he sets for the rest of the season could have an even bigger impact than anyone realizes.
Mitera is possibly the most respected Wolverine in the locker room. His play on the ice speaks volumes, but his careful choice of words off of it carries even more weight, as it did for Porter, last year’s captain.
“You want to follow what he does,” sophomore defenseman Tristin Llewellyn said.
While everyone watches to see how the team reacts and recovers, those young Wolverines will still be looking to him for guidance. They’ll remember how he acts or if he hints at any regret.
That will shape the players’ mindsets more than any win or loss this season.
Kolarik went through a similar situation last season, when he suffered a serious groin injury just before Michigan’s postseason run.
The injury completely transformed how Kolarik led. Working hard in rehab replaced the effort he could exert on the ice. And outside of Yost, he became even more vocal and involved with his teammates.
Mitera is certainly up to the task, but embracing this role for the rest of the grueling season is crucial, with his importance to the future of the program even bigger now.
Yes, Mitera staying is a success story in itself, as it has been with Hunwick, Hensick and Porter before him. But we won’t truly know if Mitera’s staying was a success until a few years from now.
—Eisenstein can be reached at email@example.com.