Ann Arbor — Mel Pearson is looking forward to getting behind Michigan’s bench for the first time as the Wolverines head coach Saturday night at Yost Arena in a preseason game against Western Ontario before opening the regular season Oct. 6 at St. Lawrence.
“It’s about time, been a long time since April when I got hired and this is what you’ve been waiting for, the games,” said Pearson, an assistant coach under Red Berenson for 23 years, helping the Wolverines win national championships in 1996 and 1998, then advancing to the national title game in his final year with the program in 2011, losing to Minnesota-Duluth in overtime.
“The enthusiasm and energy level has been really good and the improvement from Week 1 to now Week 3 has been dramatic, just as far as how they approach practice, the preparation and then when you go on the ice the execution. The whole energy and vibe has been good.”
Pearson and his staff have only been been on the ice to see the team two hours a week the last few weeks, deciding to go with four 30-minute practices to get accustomed to each other. Regular practice will begin next week.
Pearson departed after the 2011 season to gain head coaching experience at his alma mater, Michigan Tech, taking over a program that went 70-197-37 in the previous eight years to his arrival and turning it into an NCAA tournament team in two of his final three years, going 75-34-14.
Pearson knows how to build winning programs and now he has to do it once again at Michigan where the Wolverines have suffered two losing seasons in the past five years, 13-19-3 last season (6-12-2 Big Ten).
Michigan was picked to finish sixth in the seven-team Big Ten League with Minnesota as the preseason favorite in the coaches poll, followed by Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State, the Wolverines and Spartans.
“The expectations from the outside is not big, picked to finish sixth out of seven teams in the league, not even in the top 20 in the national polls so it is what it is,” Pearson said. “We’ll have a chance. Whether you’re picked first or last, you always have something to prove and we’ve got maybe more to prove than we have in the past.”
But, Pearson has reason for optimism, especially with freshman Josh Norris, a first-round pick of the Sharks, coming in.
It’s interesting that Norris is at Michigan after having a very successful career in the U.S. National Development Program since his parents both graduated from Michigan State, including his father, Dwayne, who played for the Spartans, scoring a pair of goals against top-ranked Maine during his All-American senior year in 1992 to put them into the Frozen Four.
“I was a pretty big Sparty fan growing up since my Mom and Dad went to Michigan State, but at the end of the day this was the best spot for me,” said Norris of his decision to attend Michigan.
So, can Norris be the type of impact player his freshman year that Dylan Larkin and Kyle Connor were in the past few years at Michigan?
“I think I can give you a little bit of everything,” Norris said. “Offense is a big part of my game, but I like to kill penalties, I like to win face-offs, I like to make plays, that’s the biggest thing.
“To be honest with you, I think Larkin and I have a lot of the same attributes. I think his speed is his biggest asset and I think that’s the same for me as well. I think we can both make plays. We both play up the middle. Size wise (6-foot-1, 195) and stuff like that we’re similar.”
Larkin had 15 goals and 47 points in his lone season at Michigan in 2014-15 before moving on to the Red Wings. Connor had 35 goals and 71 points in his lone year for the Wolverines the following season before moving on to the Jets.
So, will Norris be one-and-done as well?
“I like school, both of my parents got degrees so that’s definitely a goal for me and I’m not too focused about the future,” Norris said. “I’m here because I wanted to be a Michigan Wolverine and whatever happens, happens, but I’m just looking forward to putting my best foot forward.”
Norris will wear the No. 9 uniform made famous by Berenson and then Brendan Morrison who scored the game-winner in the ’96 title game against Colorado College. He had 23 goals and 28 assists in 52 games for U.S. U-18 team last season.
Norris will center the top line of Will Lockwood and Jake Slater. Junior Cooper Marody will center the second line of senior Tony Calderone (15 goals) and Brendan Warren.
Still, Pearson feels the strength of Michigan’s team will be goaltending and defense.
“I think it will be goaltending,” Pearson said. “They (Hayden Lavigne, Jack LaFontaine) both played last year as freshmen. They have great experience and they both look really good, and then you have the third guy, Chad Catt, who is also capable.
“We have to be good from our net out. We have to be much better defensively. I think we were 46th in the country and that’s not going to cut it. We have enough guys who can score goals. But, I definitely think our goaltending and defense will be our strengths.”