Yost Ice Arena might not have been filled with fans, the pep band might not have been playing and no stats may have been kept.

Paul Wong
Michigan defenseman Eric Werner is one of 11 sophomore players that the Wolverines will look to this year in the absence of Mike Cammalleri and Mike Komisarek. The Wolverines opened practice last Thursday.

But the road to the Frozen Four started here on Thursday, when the Michigan hockey team officially began practice for the 2002-03 season.

For the fourth straight year, the Wolverines took the ice after the loss of a couple of stars. This year scoring leader Mike Cammalleri and defensive enforcer Mike Komisarek left school for the professional ranks.

In what has become an annual event, Michigan and Michigan State have been picked to finish one-two in the CCHA by both the league’s coaches and the media. Michigan was also voted No. 3 in the USCHO.com national preseason poll that came out yesterday, trailing behind Minnesota and Denver.

While the Wolverines are picked to win the CCHA, the league might be as close as it has been in years. According to Michigan coach Red Berenson, the Wolverines were only picked first because no other team in the league stood out.

“We’ve had this before where we weren’t necessarily the best team on paper,” Berenson said. “But there wasn’t necessarily anyone better than Michigan, and based on the fact that we finished first and that we did have a good playoff experience (we were picked first) … not because we were the best team on paper.”

The Wolverines also boast an 11-man sophomore class that’s going to assume a leadership role this season. From this summer’s three NHL draftees (Eric Nystrom, Dwight Helminen and Jason Ryznar) to walk-on contributor Charlie Henderson, the entire cast should have an impact.

The team is looking to the second-year players to fill the scoring void left by Cammalleri, who led the team with 23 goals despite missing 25 games to the World Junior Championships and mononucleosis.

“Everyone’s looking for us to step it up,” Nystrom said. “We’re a big part of the team, so we got to play a leadership role. The freshmen coming in, they’re looking at a small senior class, a small junior class and a really big sophomore class, and they’re going to be looking at us to make an example.”

The Wolverines may be starting a 17-year-old between the pipes. Since Berenson took over the Michigan program 18 years ago, three goalies have come in and started their freshman year: Steve Shields, Marty Turco and Josh Blackburn. Al Montoya hopes to be the fourth. Montoya should be a senior at Huron High in Ann Arbor this year, playing with the United States National Development Program. But the Glenview, Ill. native fast-tracked through high school so he could start this season in place of Blackburn.

Michigan did, however, bring in two other goalies, Chris Gartman and Noah Ruden, who will see playing time should Montoya have difficulty adjusting to the college game.

“We recruited Montoya with the idea that he would be our starting goaltender,” Berenson said. “And I think he’ll get that opportunity. If he looks like he needs help, I will be quick to throw in one of the other goalies because they’re a little more experienced then he is.”

But Montoya isn’t worried about being replaced as he – just like the entire freshman class including Danny Richmond and Jeff Tambellini – is happy to finally get on the ice.

“Ever since I committed last year, all I have been waiting for this year is to get on this ice at Yost,” Montoya said. “And to be part of the tradition and add to it.”

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