'Bang it's over': Surging Michigan hockey team wonders what might have been

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Michigan hockey coach Mel Pearson was proud of his team’s progress and looking forward to seeing the end product in the weeks ahead, one he hoped would be witnessed in the Frozen Four at Little Caesars Arena.

But Pearson will never get the opportunity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which sent the season to a crashing halt.

Mel Pearson

Michigan started the Big Ten season 0-6-1 and closed out the league schedule on a 11-4-2 run to finish above .500 (11-10-3). The Wolverines were set to carry an 18-14-4 record into the Big Ten tournament semifinal at Ohio State against the Buckeyes (20-11-5, 11-9-4) Sunday, needing a win to get locked in to the 16-team NCAA Tournament field since it was sitting at No. 14 in the Pairwise rankings.

The Wolverines split a series with the Buckeyes Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, then went on a 7-2-1 run to earn the right to play this weekend in the semifinals with sophomore goalie Strauss Mann posting consecutive 3-0 shutouts in the quarterfinal series sweep of Michigan State, giving up just three goals in Michigan’s final four games.

“I’ve lost national championship games in overtime (Michigan lost to Minnesota-Duluth in 2011) and that’s tough, what do you say to your team then, nothing you say is going to make them feel better, so yesterday going in to tell these guys we’re done, it was the hardest day I’ve ever had to address a team that the season is over,” Pearson said. “Nothing I was going to say yesterday was going to make them feel better. It just takes time to understand it and process it and to heel from it.

“All you can do is tell them you love them and thank them for what they’ve done for our program, the fans and the school and how proud we are of them. I think that’s the hardest part, for the seniors and our team, is they’ve overcome so much this year, from the poor start to the injuries and everything else. Then, you get to the point when you’re playing well, and that’s the hardest part, as athletes you’re trained to be tough and overcome adversity, play through injuries and now they’re telling you it’s over.

“I don’t think they get it completely because they’re young, they’re healthy and tough and now someone is saying, ‘Hey, we’re not going to play.’ I think that reality and that starkness, like bang it’s over. We had some guys this morning walking around like they are in shock, not knowing what to do, like I’m sure a lot of people are in general because of what’s going on.”

Pearson, like multiple other Michigan coaches, was set to have a meeting with administrators at 1 p.m. Friday before meeting with his team later in the afternoon.

“I think a lot of coaches have meetings after that meeting," Pearson said. "We’re going to get some direction, there’s a lot of questions coaches want answers to. I think we’ll be able to give our team direction, what they can do, what they can’t do, can they work out on their own, can they use our facilities, can they just take off and go home.

“Yes, we have a meeting and we all have time now too. I have a list of questions an athlete asked me that I don’t have answers to, like can we go home, can we use the ice, can we use the weight room, can we use coaches. I know they put a moratorium on practice, but these guys don’t want to sit around, they want to keep working. I get it though, I get it with social distancing and things.

“Still, each sport has so many different nuances to what’s going on. (Swimming and diving coach) Mike Bottom got people training for the Olympics. OK, are there going to be the Olympics? Well, you probably need to train and use our facilities. Coach (Jim) Harbaugh has 14 days or whatever it is of practice. Can the players use the facilities and hang out? We still have school, it’s online, but we still want to know if we can keep them here.”

Pearson led the Wolverines to the Frozen Four in his first season as head coach at Michigan in 2017-18. He’ll have to wait for next season for another shot.

“It’s like your birthday is coming up and everybody’s anxious to come over and they have the presents and all of a sudden they say, ‘Oh no, we’re not going to celebrate, see you, and you don’t get the gifts either.’ They’re taking a party away,” Pearson said. “It’s too bad because I like this group. I was really curious to see how far we could go, but we’ll never know the answer.”