If Michigan, WMU hockey are going to settle score, it'll be in NCAA championship

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

They never did play their rubber match.

So if the Michigan and Western Michigan hockey teams are going to settle the early season series split, it's going to have to be in the NCAA championship.

The Wolverines (29-9-1), champions of the Big Ten, and Broncos (25-11-1), runners-up in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, are No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, which starts this week. The Frozen Four is April 7 and 9 in Boston.

Western Michigan celebrates during its win over Michigan in October.

Michigan is the No. 1 overall seed, while Western Michigan is the No. 3 overall seed in the 16-team field. Michigan Tech (21-12-3), semifinalist in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, is a No. 3 seed.

“I think we have the team to do it,” center Matty Beniers, one of several prized NHL draft picks on the Michigan roster, said of winning a national championship. “I think that’s what really puts more pressure on us. It’s because we know what we can do. We know we can be extremely good. And then at this point of the year, it’s just how good can you be in those pressure moments and when the game’s really on the line.

“I think we’re all ready for it. I think we’re excited. The regular season’s fun and all, but this is really when it becomes fun. I think it’s more excitement and pressure."

Michigan will open against American International (22-12-3) at 3 p.m. Friday in Allentown, Pennsylvania; Western Michigan gets under way with Northeastern (25-12-1) at noon Friday in Worcester, Massachusetts; and Michigan Tech starts with Minnesota Duluth (21-15-4) at 3 p.m. Thursday in Loveland, Colorado. 

Michigan, led by Hobey Baker finalists Beniers and Luke Hughes, is making its 41st appearance in the NCAA Tournament, and third in head coach Mel Pearson's tenure. He also made two NCAAs at Michigan Tech.

The Wolverines are looking to make up for last year, when they were forced to withdraw from the NCAA Tournament because of a COVID-19 outbreak.


They bounced back. Despite more COVID and injury issues and lengthy absences of top players who were off competing in the eventually canceled World Juniors and later the Olympics, they earned the program's eighth No. 1 overall seed. The last was in 2012, when they lost their opener to Cornell, 3-2 in overtime.

It's the first No. 1 seed for Western Michigan; the Broncos' previous best was a No. 2, in their last appearance, in 2007. 

The Broncos made a big statement early in the season when they beat then-No. 1 Michigan, 5-2, on Oct. 22 at Yost Ice Arena Arena. The Wolverines won the next night, 3-2 in overtime, at Lawson Ice Arena in Kalamazoo.

The teams were supposed to meet again Dec. 30 in Ann Arbor, as part of the new-look Great Lakes Invitational, which moved from downtown Detroit to campus sites. But Michigan, lacking practice time over the holidays and with injuries, absences and COVID-19 concerns, decided it wasn't in the team's best interest to play back-to-back games. So Michigan scrapped the Western Michigan game, but still played Michigan Tech the day before. The decision drew the ire of hockey fans, especially Broncos fans.

Pearson strongly defended the school's decision, which he put on the athletic department's health and training officials. But a publicly released email from Pearson to a school administrator two weeks earlier showed he was questioning whether Michigan should play the game.

"Super disappointing," first-year Western Michigan coach Pat Ferschweiler said at the time. "Our players very much had that circled on the calendar, especially after that overtime loss.

"We wanted to settle that score, one way or another."

Added junior defenseman Ronnie Attard, of White Lake: "Hopefully we'll see them come playoffs."

The Broncos have dealt with their own adversity this year, losing captain Paul Washe, a Clarkston native, who was removed from the team after allegations of sexual assault. Western Michigan is 11-6-1 since Washe's last game, Dec. 29 at Michigan State. Washe was arraigned last month, and posted bond, but isn't allowed to be around the team or inside athletic-department buildings. He is due back in court May 11 for a preliminary exam, which was postponed from last week.

Michigan, Western Michigan and Michigan Tech, led by Hobey Baker finalist Brian Halonen, are looking to give the state its 19th Division I national hockey championship, and the first since Michigan State in 2007.

Minnesota State (35-5-0), CCHA tournament champion, and Denver (27-9-1), NCHC semifinalist, are the tournament's other two No. 1 seeds.

State national hockey champions

►1948, Michigan

►1951, Michigan

►1952, Michigan

►1953, Michigan

►1956, Michigan

►1962, Michigan Tech

►1964, Michigan

►1965, Michigan Tech

►1966, Michigan State

►1975, Michigan Tech

►1986, Michigan State

►1988, Lake Superior State

►1991, Northern Michigan

►1992, Lake Superior State

►1994, Lake Superior State

►1996, Michigan

►1998, Michigan

►2007, Michigan State

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984