Report raises concerns about coach Mel Pearson, 'culture and operation' of Michigan hockey

Nolan Bianchi
The Detroit News

A report obtained by The Detroit News details allegations against Michigan hockey coach Mel Pearson and issues in the program that "require attention." 

The 70-page report was issued by the Washington D.C.-based WilmerHale law firm. 

Pearson, who has been the head coach at Michigan since 2017, was accused of retaining employees who had "contemporaneous knowledge of sexual conduct committed by former University physician Dr. Robert Anderson," mistreating women associated with the program, violating the university's COVID-19 safety protocols, and "retaliation against and unfair treatment of student athletes."

Mel Pearson

The report concludes that "multiple instances" have been identified in which "team leadership acted unprofessionally — especially in interactions with female staff members and in treatment of student athletes" but that Pearson did not directly violate Michigan's policy on sexual and gender-based misconduct, saying, "we do have concerns about the culture and operation of the men's hockey program."

In the report, it is stated multiple times that Pearson's recollection of events were not credible.

Rick Bancroft, former director of hockey operations who retired from his position at Michigan in late June, is alleged in the report to have discriminated against female staffers and also allegedly knew about the Anderson's sexual misconduct.

"These issues facing the hockey program require attention," the report reads. "Despite prior efforts to assess and respond to allegations regarding the culture of the program, additional work remains to be done. 

"Specifically, the University should review whether Respondent’s (Pearson) conduct violates other University policies, including but not limited to Standard Practice Guide 601.90, Protection from Retaliation. In addition, the Athletic Department should take steps to address a number of issues discussed in this report, including (1) the mistreatment of female staff members by Mr. Bancroft; (2) Respondent’s inability or unwillingness to hold Mr. Bancroft accountable for his conduct; (3) pervasive fears among both student athletes and staff members of retaliation by Respondent for raising issues; and (4) inconsistencies in Respondent’s recollection, perception, and/or characterization of key incidents and issues as compared with other participants."

The complainant in the report is Steve Shields, a former Wolverine goalkeeper who served as a volunteer director of player development for the program. Shields issued a complaint to the Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX Office (ECRT), which then referred the investigation to WilmerHale, according to the report.

WilmerHale also investigated allegations of sexual misconduct against Dr. Anderson earlier this year.

The report states that evidence suggests "(Shields) confronted (Pearson) about the mistreatment of women in the hockey program on at least one occasion and that hockey program staff understood (Pearson) to be aware of complaints that Mr. Bancroft bullied his female colleagues."

One key member in the report is former goaltender Strauss Mann, who captained Michigan in 2020-21 and was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. According to the report, Mann, who declined to be interviewed for the investigation, raised concerns about Pearson's handling of various issues within the program, including Pearson encouraging the team to lie on contact tracing forms.

It's alleged that Pearson forced Mann to leave the program for serving as the "ringleader" of players who brought upon concerns that could get him fired.

"These accounts reveal a widespread assumption within the hockey program that (Pearson) linked (Shields) to issues surrounding the treatment of student athletes and in particular (Pearson's) conflict with Mr. Mann," the report said. "And, as noted above, (Pearson) appeared to view the concerns being raised by Mr. Mann as a serious threat to his position as head coach.

"At the very least, the evidence is clear that Mr. Mann believed that his status with the hockey program was in serious jeopardy because of friction with Respondent."

Pearson, 63, led the Wolverines to a Frozen Four appearance this year. His original five-year deal expired at the end of April, but he has continued to work as Michigan's head hockey coach. 

Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel has not yet weighed in on the hockey investigation. He attended the Frozen Four and after Michigan's loss to eventual national champion Denver stood outside the Wolverines’ locker room. When approached by The Detroit News for comment on Pearson’s contract status, he shook his head indicating he would not be discussing the situation.

“He’ll be fine,” Manuel said of Pearson as he walked away.

On Tuesday, a Michigan spokesperson said Pearson is still the university's hockey coach.

Staff writer Angelique S. Chengelis contributed to this report.

Twitter: @nolanbianchi