NHL Ready Michigan Hockey Team Stars in Frozen Four

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Mel Pearson, the University of Michigan men’s hockey coach, waved at a small box in his office. His voice shook as h...

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Mel Pearson, the University of Michigan men’s hockey coach, waved at a small box in his office. His voice shook as he described his players’ hopes of winning the upcoming Frozen Four, college hockey’s biggest event.

“I want it so badly for the players,” Pearson said. “They’ve been through so much and they’re such good kids.”

Pearson was trying to explain that he had already made so many memories, but his voice trailed off and he burst into tears. He stood up, grabbed a handkerchief from his desk, apologized, shook his head and laughed. When asked what he had pointed to, Pearson opened a small wooden box filled with a dozen rings, all inlaid with the signature Michigan M. They included two that commemorated national championship teams in 1996 and 1998, when Pearson was an assistant to his mentor. , Berenson Red.

Like Pearson, Michigan hockey had its share of glory. It has played in more Frozen Fours (26) and won more hockey championships (nine) than any other university. But six of those titles were won before 1960, and none have come for nearly a quarter of a century.

The current group of Wolverines, a garish assemblage of top-notch talent never before seen on a college roster – with a history of disappointment and sacrifice – have yet to join the pantheon.

As Michigan enters the Frozen Four against the University of Denver in their national semifinal Thursday in Boston, the pressure is on the Wolverines and their glamorous roster. Minnesota and Minnesota State meet in the other semifinal, but none of the other three teams — in fact, no team in college hockey history — features a roster like the one Pearson recruited.

Michigan has seven first-round NHL picks, including an unprecedented four of the five top-five selections of 2021. That’s more top-five picks than the Tampa Bay Lightning have on their roster, and the Lightning have won the last two Stanley Cups.

“It will probably never happen again,” said a freshman Luc Hughes, the Devils’ No. 4 pick. “And we all know we’ll never play together again, and we only have one chance. I don’t mean there’s pressure, but there’s a lot of desire. And maybe a bit of pressure too.

That night in July, minutes before the Devils selected Hughes, Owen Power, an Ontario defenseman, became Michigan’s first overall pick when Buffalo selected him.

Matty Beniers, a skilled point guard from Massachusetts, was taken at No. 2 by the Seattle Kraken. Hughes, whose brother Jack was ranked No. 1 overall by the Devils in 2019 and leads the team in goals this season, was later picked up at No. 4, and the Columbus Blue Jackets took the center Kent Johnson at No. 5. Not even Alabama football has had a top five like this (he came close, with three top-five catches in the 1948 NFL Draft).

Watching the proceedings at home, Pearson gulped. In less than an hour, virtually all of his power play was gobbled up.

“It happened so fast,” Pearson said. “They were interviewing Matty and then bang, there’s Luke Hughes off the board and then bang, there’s Kent.”

Later in the first round, the Florida Panthers took Mackie Samoskevich with the 24th pick. Those five joined Johnny Beecher and Brendan Brisson, who were selected in the first rounds in 2019 and 2020, to give Michigan an astonishing first seven rounds.

In college hockey, players can stay in school after being drafted and NHL teams retain their rights. The seven picks, along with six other bottom-round rookies, chose to return to Ann Arbor for one last chance to play together and one last shot at a national championship.

“It’s not easy to turn down an NHL contract when you’re drafted first, second, fifth,” Wolverines senior captain Nick Blankenburg said. “Lots of praise and respect for these returning guys.”

As a huge sports-centric university at a Power Five conference, Michigan has many built-in advantages over smaller schools, including lavish facilities, financial muscle, and, for players, a history of game development. players into commercially viable talents. Quinn Hughes, the older brother of Luke and Jack, played two years for Michigan and was the 7th overall pick by the Vancouver Canucks in 2018.

Michigan’s former players are scattered throughout the NHL, both on the ice and in the broadcast booth. Billy Jaffe, the Boston Bruins analyst for NESN, played at Michigan in 1988, the year Pearson started as an assistant. He said it was unusual for top draft picks to spend more than a year at the college level.

“The fact that they’re all coming back says something about the program,” Jaffe said, “and also maybe something about what happened last year with Covid.”

This season’s origin story begins a year ago in Fargo, ND, as the Wolverines prepared to face Minnesota-Duluth in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It’s part of what made Pearson so emotional. As the players awoke from their pre-game nap, they saw a text message from Pearson asking them to immediately gather in a hotel meeting room. There were only three hours left before the puck was dropped.

“Once we saw our coach’s face, we knew what was going on,” Blankenburg said.

Two players had tested positive for the coronavirus, and the NCAA disqualified the Wolverines. Instead of playing that night, the dark band went to the arena and packed up their gear and returned to the hotel to wait for their plane home. Those who could stand it watched Bemidji State beat Wisconsin on TV.

“It was devastating,” recalls Beniers. “It’s one thing when you lose and another thing when you don’t even get a chance to play.”

Like other top rookies, Beniers said he was already keen to return to Michigan for his sophomore year because he enjoyed his freshman year so much, and the emptiness he felt after that inconclusive final in 2021 made the decision much easier. In pre-draft meetings with NHL teams, including the Kraken, Beniers told executives that if they expected him to join their clubs right away, they would have to fight his mother for that.

Christine Maglione Beniers, a Boston-area attorney — who also starred in ‘A Chorus Line’ on Broadway — wanted her son to have the full college experience. But the few games Michigan played were staged in empty arenas, classes were online and campus social life was restricted.

There will always be time to skate against 33-year-old NHL sluggers like Pat Maroon and Milan Lucic.

“I don’t know what the big rush is to get to the next level when you haven’t even fully experienced this one,” Maglione Beniers said in a phone interview. “In the end, it was his decision. But this is the last chance you have to be there and play with kids your age.

But Michigan, with 31 wins, nine losses and a draw, is far from perfect. He lost all four regular-season games to Notre Dame before beating the Irish in the conference tournament, and he nearly blew a 4-0 lead in the third period of their NCAA Tournament second-round victory. against Quinnipiac. But the Wolverines held on to reach the 26th Frozen Four in the program, and this time with a team loaded with NHL talent.

“Last year ended on such a disappointment,” Power said. “We all wanted to come back and do something really big.”

Power, a quiet 6-foot-5 defenseman, will likely play for the Sabers in Buffalo, about a 90-minute drive from his home in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. His return to Michigan gave him one last chance to play in a 100-year-old rink with the band that sings the fight song, to live in community with his teammates, and to share a dream with those whose first wish was simply to… get an offer from a University.

“It’s special to be a part of it,” Blankenburg said. “I’ll look back in 20 years, when I have a family, and just to be able to say that I played with those guys, and what we went through, I’ll cherish forever.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: NHL Ready Michigan Hockey Team Stars in Frozen Four
NHL Ready Michigan Hockey Team Stars in Frozen Four
Newsrust - US Top News
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