UM hockey forced out of NCAA Tournament because of positive tests

Tony Paul Nolan Bianchi
The Detroit News

Everyone likes to cut out early on Friday, but Michigan's hockey team could've done without a long weekend.

The Wolverines were forced to withdraw from the NCAA Tournament just after noon Friday, receiving the "devastating" news hours before their scheduled game against 2019 national champion Minnesota Duluth.

Michigan had multiple positive COVID-19 tests.

Michigan hockey coach Mel Pearson.

"I'm devastated for these players. These student-athletes have done a wonderful job all year of making sacrifices to get to this point of the year," head coach Mel Pearson said in a statement.

"It's unfortunate. I don't completely understand the final decision but I have to respect it.

"They've given so much and to get this opportunity taken away from them, it's hard to swallow. I know it's just a game, but it's extremely important to these young men. It's two years in a row now we've been denied an opportunity to compete in the national championship. It has quite sunk in yet."

The decision was made by the NCAA Division I Men's Ice Hockey Committee and the NCAA Medical Advisory Group. The NCAA said local health authorities were consulted, as well.

Michigan said there were positive tests within the program's Tier I testing group. The NCAA said because of "privacy issues," no further details can be provided.

Michigan (15-10-1), ranked eighth and seeded second, was to play Minnesota Duluth (14-10-2), ranked ninth and seeded third, at 4 p.m. Friday in Fargo, North Dakota. Minnesota Duluth now advances to the next round. Friday's game is officially declared a no-contest.

The Wolverines had a sluggish start to the season but finished 8-3-1 down the stretch with victories over No. 3 Minnesota and No. 7 Wisconsin.

Minnesota Duluth won the last NCAA hockey championship, in 2019. Last year's Frozen Four, to be held at Detroit's Little Caesars Arena, was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In announcing the news Friday, Michigan athletics said players and staff have been in daily testing protocol since the end of the Big Ten tournament, on March 16.

"I want to wish all the teams still playing good health, good luck and stay safe," Pearson said. "Lastly, I want to make sure to thank the Michigan hockey supporters. I've been blown away by the number of people who care deeply about and support this program. It truly means a lot to me and to our players. We'll be back. Michigan Hockey will be back. Stronger and ready to go next year."

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The team's withdrawal is especially disappointing to a trio of 2021 NHL Draft-eligible prospects. Forwards Matt Beniers and Kent Johnson and defenseman Owen Power were ranked in the top seven of TSN analyst Bob McKenzie's early draft rankings back in December, and have maintained position within the top 10 on most other big boards.

On the flip-side, this now makes two consecutive seasons that Michigan's upperclassmen had their season cut short by COVID-related circumstances. The Wolverines in 2019-20 had a similar trajectory to this team, hoping their late-season run would propel them to another Frozen Four, at LCA.

After a sweep of Michigan State in the opening round of last year's Big Ten tournament in March, Michigan's growing confidence had Pearson making comparisons to the 1998 national championship team. The 2020 conference tournament was canceled before the second-round matchup with Ohio State on March 15.

"We were really shooting for Detroit, and that fueled us last year," Pearson told The Detroit News after this year's NCAA Tournament bracket was announced Sunday night.

"The guys came back this year, obviously, with a purpose. And that's what you need to do — with a purpose, and a goal. I give them a lot of credit because so many teams have been derailed because of COVID. ... I'm excited and really happy for them that they get another kick at the can."

This was to be Michigan's 38th appearance in the NCAA Tournament, tied for the most with Minnesota. The Wolverines have won a Division I-record nine national championships.

Notre Dame also was forced to pull out, leaving the tournament with 14 teams as it got under way Friday.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984