The Michigan hockey team, ready for the NHL, plays in Frozen Four

AN ARBUR, MICHIGAN – Mel Pearson, the male hockey coach at the University of Michigan, pointed to a small box in his office. His voice trembled as he described his players’ hopes of winning the upcoming Frozen Four, the college’s top hockey event.

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

Pearson tried to explain that he had already carved 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 pointed out, Pearson opened a small wooden box full of a dozen rings, all inlaid with the Michigan M signature. Red Berenson.

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

The current group, Wolverines, a shiny collection of high-end talent never seen on a college list – with a history of disappointment and casualties – has yet to join the pantheon.

As Michigan enters the Frozen Four against the University of Denver in their national semifinals on Thursday in Boston, the pressure is on the Wolverines and their glamorous squad. Minnesota and Minnesota State face off in the other semifinals, but none of the other three teams – in fact, no team in college history – has a lineup like the one Pearson recruited.

Michigan boasts seven selections from the first round of the NHL, including an unprecedented four of the top five selections of 2021. That’s more choices in the top five than Tampa Bay Lightning has on its list, and Lightning has won the last two Cups. of Stanley.

“It will probably never happen again,” the freshman said Luke Hughes, choice number 4 to hell. “And we all know we will never play together again and we only have one chance. I do not want to say that there is pressure, but there is a lot of desire. And maybe a little pressure. “

On that night in July, minutes before the devils chose Hughes, Owen Power, the Ontario defender, became Michigan’s number one overall when Buffalo selected him.

Mattie Beniors, the skilled playmaker from Massachusetts, was taken at number 2 by the Seattle Kraken. Hughes, whose brother Jack was ranked No. 1 by the Devils in 2019 and leads the team in goals this season, was next at No. 4, and the Columbus Blue Jackets took center Kent Johnson at No. 5. Even Alabama football never had such a five (approaching, with three taking the top five in the 1948 NFL Draft).

Watching the meeting at home, Pearson swallowed. In less than an hour, almost all of his game of power was engulfed.

“It happened so fast,” Pearson said. “They interviewed Mattie and then thunder, here’s Luke Hughes getting off the board and then thunder, Kent comes.

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

In college hockey, players can stay in school after being selected, and NHL teams retain their rights. All seven selected, plus six lower-ranked candidates, chose to return to Ann Arbor for one last chance to play together and one last shot at the national championship.

“It’s not easy to turn down an NHL contract when you’re chosen first, second, fifth,” said Nick Blankenberg, senior captain of Wolverines. “A lot of praise and respect for those guys who are coming back.”

As a huge, sports-focused university in the Power Five conference, Michigan has many built-in advantages over smaller schools, including lavish facilities, financial power, and a player’s history of developing players in commercially viable talent. Queen Hughes, Luke and Jack’s older brother, played for Michigan for two years and was No. 7 overall pick by the Vancouver Canucks in 2018.

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

“The return of all of them says something about the program,” Jaffe said, “and maybe something about what happened to Covid last year.”

The story of this season’s origins began a year ago in Fargo, North America, when the 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 their naps before the game, they saw a text message from Pearson instructing them to gather immediately in a hotel boardroom. There were only three hours left until the puck fell.

“After seeing the face of our coach, we knew what was happening,” said Blankenburg.

Two players tested positive for coronavirus and the NCAA disqualified Wolverines. Instead of playing tonight, the grim group went to the arena, packed their gear, and returned to the hotel to wait for their plane home. Those who could stand it watched Bemidji State beat Wisconsin on television.

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

Like the other top candidates, Beniers said he was already looking forward to returning to Michigan for his second year because he was enjoying his first year so much, and the emptiness he experienced after that unconvincing final in 2021 made the decision much more -Easy. During preliminary meetings with NHL teams, including the Kraken, Beniers told executives that if they expected him to join their clubs immediately, they would have to fight his mother.

Christine Maglione Beniers, a Boston lawyer who also starred on Broadway’s A Chorus Line, wanted her son to have the full college experience. But the few games Michigan played were held in empty arenas, classes were online, and social life on campus was limited.

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

“I don’t know what it’s like to rush to the next level when you haven’t even fully experienced it,” Maglione Beniers said in a telephone interview. “It simply came to our notice then. But this is the last chance to be around and play with children your age. ”

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

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

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. His return to Michigan gave him one last chance to play on a 100-year-old slide with the band that pumped out the battle song, to live with teammates and share a dream with those whose original desire was simply to receive an offer from college.

“It’s special to be a part of it,” Blankenburg said. “I will look back after 20 years when I have a family, and just to be able to say that I played with these guys and the things we went through, I will appreciate it forever.”

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