Michigan Tech last played an NCAA tournament game on March 28, 1981, when the Huskies defeated Upper Peninsula rival Northern Michigan 5-2 for third place at the Frozen Four in Duluth, Minn. Mel Pearson, a center on that team who registered 16 points (6-10–16) as a senior in 1981, is now charged with the task of leading his alma mater back to prominence.
“It was, obviously, the highlight of my playing career to get there,” Pearson said of his NCAA tournament experience. “The goal is to try to get us back to the place that we were when I was a player here and for our players to have that same experience.
“It’s going to take a lot of hard work but, with the changing landscape, you never know,” Pearson said of the conference realignments taking place in two years. “It might be more of a realistic possibility now than it was six months ago.”
Pearson, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, hasn’t done much since he left Houghton. Unless, of course, you count his 23 years helping Red Berenson guide the Michigan Wolverines to a 667-243-71 record, 11 Frozen Fours, and two national championships.
In addition to coaching alongside the iconic Berenson, Pearson played high school hockey in Edina, Minn., for legendary Minnesota coach Willard Ikola while his father competed professionally for the St. Paul-based Minnesota Fighting Saints of the World Hockey Association. His good fortune continued in college with the opportunity to play for the great John MacInnes for whom the Huskies’ arena is now named.
“[Ikola] was a great mentor and a good coach, and I still stay in touch with him, and, obviously, John MacInnes was one of the main reasons why I came to Michigan Tech,” said Pearson. “He was just a super individual and a great coach. Then to go work with Red, I mean, if I could just get one-hundredth of all the knowledge and success they’ve had I think I’ll be OK.”
Shortly after the Wolverines were beaten in overtime 3-2 by Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA title game last April, Michigan Tech athletic director Suzanne Sanregret contacted Pearson about the vacancy created by the resignation of Jamie Russell and offered him the job. But the lingering emotions rooted in the season’s sudden and disappointing end were still too raw for Pearson to consider such a move and he declined.
Fortunately for Pearson, after a brief period of self-reflection and consultation with trusted peers, the job was still there to be had when he was ready. On May 6, Pearson accepted the only head coaching position it ever occurred to him to pursue.
“It seemed like this would be a great challenge at a spot that I knew and felt passionately about,” said Pearson. “I could have just stayed at Michigan, rode it out, and been very, very happy with what I’d accomplished. But this is sort of a unique place and a special place for me.”
Pearson said the initial task for his staff is to establish an elevated standard of play and expectation with emphasis on work ethic, accountability and teamwork.
“We have to come in here and really start all over and teach the players how to go about winning,” said Pearson. “We don’t have the superstars some other programs do; we have to work together as a team, all play on the same page and play for one another.”
An accomplished recruiter, Pearson is credited with luring dozens of eventual All-Americans to Ann Arbor, including several Hobey Baker Award finalists. Fifty-four Michigan players went on to play in the NHL during Pearson’s tenure. Pearson said he won’t change anything in terms of his effort and approach to the recruiting process but admitted he will be dealing with a different pool of players than was the case at Michigan.
“I think you have to understand your audience and know your audience and who’s interested in what we have to sell and then sell that hard,” said Pearson. “It might be … realizing who you can go after and not wasting a lot of time on kids who aren’t interested in a place like Michigan Tech but focusing on the kids who would be interested in Tech that are good players and good students.”
About the Huskies
2010-11 overall record: 4-30-4
2010-11 WCHA record: 2-24-2 (12th)
2011-12 predicted finish (coaches poll): 12th
Key losses: D Deron Cousins, F Bennett Royer
Players to watch: F Brett Olson, F Jordan Baker, F Milos Gordic, F Ryan Furne
Impact rookie: F Blake Pietila
Why the Huskies will finish higher than the coaches poll: Olson and Baker stay healthy and return to form while the Huskies hockey culture change begins to take hold.
Why the Huskies will finish lower than the coaches poll: Unless the WCHA can find a way to add a 13th team, it won’t happen.