In Frozen Four, Michigan is looking to make up for lost year

Ann Arbor, Michigan – Mel Pearson, coach of the University of Michigan Men’s Hockey University, pointed to a small box in his office. His voice trembled as he described his players ’hopes of winning the upcoming“ Cold Four, ”the main college hockey competition.

“I just want it so bad for the players,” Pearson said. “They’ve been through so much and they’re such wonderful children.”

Pearson tried to explain that he had already expressed so many memories, but his voice trailed off and he burst into tears. He got up, grabbed a napkin from the table, apologized, shook his head and laughed. When asked what he was pointing to, Pearson opened a small wooden box filled with a dozen rings, all inlaid with Michigan M’s signature. They had two who honored the national championships in 1996 and 1998 when Pearson was his teacher’s assistant, Red Berrenson.

Like Pearson, Michigan hockey enjoys its share of fame. He was in more Frozen Four (26) and won more hockey championships (nine) than any other university. But six of these titles were won before 1960, and none have been around for nearly a quarter of a century.

The current Wolverines group, a vibrant collection of high-end talents not previously on one college’s list – with a history of disappointments and sacrifices – has yet to join the pantheon.

When Michigan enters the Cold Four against the University of Denver in the national semifinals on Thursday in Boston, the pressure is on Raamahi and their glamorous list. Minnesota and Minnesota State will meet in another semifinal, but none of the other three teams – in fact, no team in the history of college hockey – has a lineup like the one scored by Pearson.

Michigan boasts seven elections in the first round of the NHL Draft, including an unprecedented four of the top 20 elections in 2021. That’s more than Tampa Bay Lightning’s list, and Lightning has won the last two Stanley Cups.

“It will probably never happen again,” the freshman said Luke Hughes, choice № 4 Devils. “And we all know we’ll never play together again, and we only have one chance. I do not want to say that there is pressure, but there is a desire. And maybe a little pressure too. ”

That night in July, minutes before the Devils elected Hughes, Owen Power, a defender from Ontario, became number one in Michigan when Buffalo selected him.

Mattie Benyers, a sleek playmaker from Massachusetts, finished 2nd in Seattle’s Kraken. Hughes, whose brother Jack took 1st place in the overall standings of the Devils in 2019 and leads the team in the number of goals this season, took 4th place, and the Columbus Blue Jackets took central place in Kent Johnson in 5th place. Even Alabama in football has never had such a top five (it was close, three were in the top five in the 1948 NFL draft).

Watching the house, Pearson swallowed. In less than an hour almost all his strength was eaten away.

“It happened so fast,” Pearson said. “They were interviewing Mattie and then, thumping, Luke Hughes comes off the board and then dad, goes Kent.”

Later in the first round, the Florida Panthers defeated Maki Samaskevich in the 24th election. The five joined Johnny Beecher and Brendan Brisan, who were taken into the first rounds in 2019 and 2020 to give Michigan an amazing seven first-round entrants.

In student hockey, players can stay in school after the draft, and NHL teams retain their rights. All seven elections, as well as six lower-round recruits decided to return to Ann Arbor to play together again, and the final blow to the national championship.

“It’s not easy to give up a contract in the NHL if you’re drafted first, second, fifth,” said Nick Blankenburg, senior captain of Wolverine. “A lot of praise and respect to those guys who are coming back.”

As a huge, sports-focused university at the Power Five conference, Michigan has many built-in advantages over small schools, including rich facilities, financial strength, and, for players, a story of transforming players into commercially viable talents. Quinn Hughes, the older brother of Luke and Jack, played two years for Michigan and was ranked No. 7 by the Vancouver Canucks in 2018.

Former Michigan players are scattered across the NHL, both on the ice and in the broadcast booth. Billy Jaffe, an NESN analyst with the Boston Bruins, played in Michigan in 1988, the year Pearson began as an assistant. He said it is unusual for a high draft to spend more than one year at the college level.

“To get them all back, there’s something about the program,” Jaffe said, “and maybe something about what happened to Covid last year.”

The story of this season begins a year ago in Fargo, North Dakota, when Wolverines were preparing to face Minnesota-Duluth in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That’s part of what made Pearson so emotional. When the players woke up from a pre-game sleep, they saw a text message from Pearson instructing them to gather immediately in the hotel’s conference room. There were only three hours left before the puck fell.

“As soon as we saw the face of our coach, we realized what was going on,” Blankenburg said.

Two players tested positive for coronavirus, and the NCAA disqualified Wolverine. Instead of playing that night, the gloomy group went to the arena, packed their gear and returned to the hotel to wait for the plane home. Those who could stand it watched on television how Bemidji State defeated Wisconsin.

“It was devastating,” Benier recalled. “It’s one thing if you lose, and another thing if you don’t even have the opportunity to play.”

Like other top recruits, Beniers said he is already leaning toward returning to Michigan for sophomore year because he enjoyed his first year so much, and the emptiness he felt after that fruitless final in 2021 made the decision much easier. During pre-draft meetings with NHL teams, including the Kraken, Benyers told executives that if they expect him to immediately join their clubs, they will have to fight his mother for it.

Christine Maglione Beniers, a lawyer from Boston who also performed on “A Chorus Line” on Broadway, wanted her son to gain full college experience. But several Michigan games were held in empty arenas, classes were held online, and public life on campus was limited.

There will always be time to skate against 33-year-old NHL players such as Pat Maroon and Milan Lucic.

“I don’t know what it’s like to rush to the next level if you haven’t even fully experienced this one,” Maglione Beniers said in a phone interview. “After all, it was his decision. But this is the last chance for you to be around and play with children your age. “

But Michigan, which has 31 wins, nine losses and one draw, is far from perfect. He lost all four regular-season games against Notre Dame before beating the Irish in a conference tournament, and nearly slipped ahead 4-0 in the third period of the NCAA’s second-round victory over Quinnipiac. But Wolverines refrained to reach the 26th Cold Four program, and this time with a team filled with NHL talent.

“Last year ended in such disappointment,” Power said. “We all wanted to go back and do something really great.”

Power, a quiet 6-foot-5 defender, is likely to play for the Sabers in Buffalo, about a 90-minute drive from his home in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. Returning to Michigan gave him one last chance to play on a 100-year-old rink with a band performing a war song, live with teammates and share a dream with those whose early desire was simply to get an offer from college.

“It’s special to be a part of it,” Blankenburg said. “I’ll look back in 20 years when I have a family, and I can just say I’ve played with these guys and what we’ve been through, I’ll appreciate it forever.”

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