Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel has to make a big decision in the days ahead trying to figure out who will be the next man to lead the hockey program.
Manuel will have some strong candidates in the mix to replace legendary coach Red Berenson, who announced his retirement Monday following a brilliant 33-year career that included 11 Frozen Four appearances and two national championships (1996, 1998).
And you can bet Mel Pearson will be at the top of the list with former star player Bill Muckalt also in the discussion.
Pearson, 58, was an assistant under Berenson for 23 years, playing a big part in the 11 Frozen Four appearances. He left after the Wolverines lost to Minnesota-Duluth in the 2011 national title game to take over the job at Michigan Tech where he played in his college days.
Pearson took over a Tech program that was 70-197-37 the previous eight years and guided the Huskies to a 118-92-29 record the last six years with a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances.
Muckalt was the last Michigan player to compete in four consecutive Frozen Fours (1995-98), returning his senior year to complete his degree while leading the Wolverines to their second national title in three years.
After being an assistant under Pearson at Tech for four years (2011-15), Muckalt moved on to become head coach and general manager of the Tri-City Storm, leading it to the organization’s first Clark Cup in franchise history.
Muckalt is following in the footsteps of Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill, who guided the Indiana Ice to the USHL’s Clark Cup before getting the head job at Western Michigan in 2010, and Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who led Green Bay to the Clark Cup before moving on to Norfolk of the AHL.
Pearson was in Ann Arbor to talk with Berenson Tuesday after making the trip to Farmington Hills earlier in the week to visit his daughter, a Michigan grad.
Muckalt, 42, brought his Tri-City team to the Michigan campus this past winter and had Berenson speak with the players. He also talked with Berenson Tuesday, talking of past memories that included his reason to return to Michigan to complete his degree, just like Berenson did decades earlier in the early ’60s after winning a Stanley Cup with Montreal.
“You knew it (retirement) was going to happen eventually, but he’s still sharp, still in great shape and loves the game, but it’s probably time and good for him,” Pearson said of Berenson. “It’s good that Warde’s going to keep him in the loop, stay in the department (in a special advisor role) because I believe he adds a lot of value to Michigan.
“I was with him for 23 years and we went to 11 Frozen Fours, basically they went there once every other year so when you look at Red, it’s not just the success he had but the consistency, 22 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. I don’t think that record will ever be broken. He didn’t just build a team, he built a program.”
So would Pearson take the job if offered by Manuel?
“I enjoy where I’m at, have great support there and obviously we got the program turned around, but Michigan’s Michigan so we’ll see what happens,” Pearson said.
Pearson left Michigan to gain head coaching experience. After all, who knew when Berenson would retire.
“I learned a lot from Red, beyond ice things, but more importantly how you treat people,” Pearson said. “You always wanted to treat guys like professionals. Really, you steal from everybody as coaches. You always try to get different ideas or things you think you can incorporate into your team and help shape your philosophy.
“For us, we led the country in scoring margin at Tech three years ago. I really wanted to play the same way as we did at Michigan, have a fast, uptempo team. I changed the forecheck a little bit from when we were at Michigan in our neutral zone, some systems that are little different at Tech. Part of that is because of the personnel that we have but also I try to stay on top of how the NHL plays in some ways and try to incorporate that in our system.”
Muckalt said he owes a lot for his success in the game to both Berenson and Pearson, a reason he is now in position to get a head coaching job at the Division 1 level.
“He’s a tremendous icon for college hockey, a legend and Hall of Famer as far as being a player and coach, an ambassador for college hockey and as the figurehead and fatherhood of Michigan hockey and the legacy that he’s built,” Muckalt said of Berenson. “He’s been a leader for academics and athletics for Michigan and for me to have a small piece of that, it’s just been a privilege and honor to play for him. He’s just been a mentor to help develop me as a player and I still enjoy the conversations that we have now, especially with me now being a head coach.
“I think he’s larger than life. I had a conversation with Coach today and I reminded him of the importance of me staying in school and getting my degree even though Brendan Morrison and Jason Botterill, I was losing them as linemates and we were losing a huge senior class, but just the importance of an education from Michigan.
“Obviously, everybody’s in such a hurry to get to pro hockey and into the National Hockey League. But getting to the National Hockey League is one thing, staying there is even harder. Coach has always stressed that there will life after hockey and the importance of the Michigan experience and taking advantage of that and I’m a very big believer in that, too.”
And of Pearson, Muckalt said: “I think Mel has been a great influence on me. He helped recruit me to Michigan and I learned a tremendous amount about recruiting and coaching because of Mel. He likes to play with pace and with speed and play the game the right way, and develop student-athletes.”
Muckalt is now carrying that to the USHL and hopefully to Division 1 college hockey in years to come.
“You’re always trying to get better as a coach,” Muckalt said. “We were the least penalized team in the league the last two years, so we play disciplined hockey and we have strong special teams. I like to play with speed and it’s such an advantage, whether on the forecheck or backcheck, it really forces a lot of strain and structure on the other team. I also believe in attention to detail and that starts with preparation in practice.”
So is Muckalt ready for a head job in Division 1 college hockey?
“I really love our organization and ownership, but I feel like I’ve taken the steps and earned much interest in leading a program if given an opportunity,” Muckalt said.
OTHER TOP CANDIDATES
Enrico Blasi, Miami University
Blasi, 45, played for Miami against Berenson’s Wolverines in the early ’90s, on its CCHA championship team in ’93 and was the captain his senior year in ’94.
Blasi became Miami’s head coach in 1999 at age 27, was national Coach of the Year in 2006, guided the Red Hawks to the national championship game in 2009 and prevented the Wolverines from competing in the Frozen Four at Ford Field in 2010 by defeating them in an NCAA Midwest regional title game at Fort Wayne.
His last NCAA Tournament appearance was two years ago when the Miami was a No. 1 seed.
Nate Leaman, Providence
Leaman has enjoyed a high level of success during his six years as head coach at Providence, guiding the Friars to the national championship in 2015 and an NCAA Tournament appearance this past year.
In 2014, Leaman led the Friars to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001 and their first Tournament win since 1991.
He was head coach at Union College for eight years and helped build a program that won the national championship in 2014.
Scott Sandelin, Minnesota-Duluth
Sandelin has been head coach at Minnesota-Duluth since the turn of the century, earning national Coach of the Year honors in 2004 when the Bulldogs advanced to the Frozen Four and his career highlight with an overtime win over Michigan in the 2011 national championship game.
Sandelin, 52, has guided the Bulldogs to three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and lost to Denver in the national championship game in Chicago last Thursday.