'It's just a game,' but UM hockey's Mel Pearson remains baffled by NCAA's decision

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The Michigan hockey team hadn't had a positive COVID-19 test result since mid-July. Not one throughout the fall or the winter, as the entire athletic department dealt with shutdowns and game cancellations, as the coronavirus had its way with Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County.

Then came Tuesday, when a Michigan player tested positive, and was subsequently left behind as the team traveled to North Dakota for the NCAA Tournament.

Then came Thursday, when another player, a roommate of the other player, tested positive.

Michigan head hockey coach broke the tough news to his players Friday afternoon.

Then came Friday, around 11 a.m. local time, when head coach Mel Pearson received a call from an athletic-department staff member. The season was over, Pearson was told, just hours before Michigan was to play Minnesota Duluth in the opening round of the NCAAs.

Pearson's first instinct, as anybody's would be, was to push back. But there was no point. There's no wiggle room for the NCAA these days, even with championships on the line.

"You don't get those answers any way, that's what really is difficult to understand," Pearson told The News on Saturday afternoon, while driving to Minneapolis to spend some down time with some family. "I don't completely understand how they get to this point, but I have to, obviously, respect their decision.

"There's just no give or take. That's the frustrating part. I thought, I know, our trainer did an unbelievable job of keeping the contact tracing, separating our players.

"We really tried to give ourselves every opportunity."

The NCAA provided limited details on the decision, saying only that it was made by the NCAA in conjunction with the Division I Men's Ice Hockey Committee and Fargo Cass Public Health authorities. Pearson would've preferred a similar outcome to earlier in the men's basketball season, when a Purdue player tested positive shortly before it was to play Michigan, Purdue informed Michigan, and Michigan chose to play anyway. But while upset, Pearson stopped short of saying the NCAA made the wrong decision, noting, "I'm not a doctor."

Pearson said after the first player tested positive back in Ann Arbor, the rest of the team, coaches and Tier I personnel was tested again, with no positive results before traveling to North Dakota. When in North Dakota, the two roommates of the player who tested positive were kept away from the rest of the team, not even practicing with the team, or eating with the team.

Pearson said after the second player tested positive, Michigan still had 25 "healthy" players available.

But that wasn't enough for the NCAA, which a day earlier had pulled Notre Dame from the tournament for the same reason. The NCAA Tournament began Friday afternoon with 14 teams.

Pearson broke the news to his players in a meeting room at the team hotel in Fargo, North Dakota. He kept the message short and direct. His words were met with silence, tears, and then hugs among players. And players went and hugged head athletic trainer Brian Brewster, too.

As much as any star player, Brewster's work got Michigan (15-10-1) to this point.

"He just broke down in the room," Pearson said of Brewster. "I don't think people realize how much effort and work it takes from the athletic medicine people. He's been a rock star for us, and the guys went up to him. It was very emotional, as it should be in a case like that.

"It's something that's so important, means so much to you, and to be told you can't do it ... you're better off playing the game and losing. Then, at least you had the opportunity. It stinks."

This is the second consecutive year the Michigan hockey team was denied a shot at its 10th national championship. Last year's NCAA Tournament, which was to end at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, was canceled amid the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. But at least last year, misery had company — everybody's season was canceled. This year, the championships are going on for the healthy teams. The men's basketball NCAA Tournament had one team, VCU, forced to withdraw for COVID-19. The hockey tournament, unlike the men's and women's basketball tournament, isn't taking place in a single controlled environment.

The Michigan hockey team gathered late Friday afternoon for one more team meal before boarding the plane for a somber trip back to Michigan. Pearson headed off to Minneapolis, to be around family, while being bombarded by condolences and well-wishes from countless coaches, Michigan officials and fans. Those made him feel good, or at least as good as possible.

Not every analyst agrees, but Pearson felt this team had something special, the ability to make a run to the Frozen Four next month in Pittsburgh.

He felt the same thing about last year's team, too. 

Now, Michigan will wait yet another year — not waiting for a chance at redemption, but just a chance at all.

"It's just a sport. It's just a game. I get it," said Pearson, whose Wolverines were the No. 2 seed in the region, against No. 3 Minnesota Duluth, which won the last national championship, in 2019. "There's been so many more tragic outcomes from this disease.

"But, this time of the year, for our young athletes, this is extremely important. It's really why you play all year. I just feel really bad for all the people who put in the time and effort to get to this point.

"I just wish there was something I could do to change it."

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984