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College Hockey:
Michigan Tech’s upward movement under Pearson no surprise, but pace is

The first-year coach has the Huskies at 10 wins in WCHA play for only the second time in the last 15 seasons.

— It has been 31 years since the Michigan Tech Huskies last competed in the Frozen Four. Since that time, they’ve had only six seasons in which they finished with at least a .500 record, most recently in 2006-07, under the tutelage of then-head coach Jamie Russell. In his first season at the helm, current head coach Mel Pearson has a chance to make it seven, with the potential for several more down the road.

“I really did not know what to expect, and that’s why I first took the job. I didn’t want to put numbers of wins and home-ice playoffs [for expectations],” said Pearson. “I did have the belief that we could do better.”

This season, the Huskies have beaten several traditional WCHA powers, including Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth and Denver. They’ve also managed to take care of teams against whom they’ve traditionally struggled, like Alaska-Anchorage.

Upward movement for programs with first-year coaches has been a major theme of the 2011-12 college hockey season.

Massachusetts-Lowell went 5-25-4 last season but is 20-9 and contending for the Hockey East title under Norm Bazin. Michigan State was four games under .500 a year ago but is 18-12-4 in Tom Anastos’ first season.

Like Bazin and Anastos, Pearson is starting to turn things around in his first season at his alma mater.

He played at Michigan Tech from 1977-81, helping the Huskies make it to the NCAA tournament during his final season. In 1985, Pearson joined the Huskies’ coaching staff and spent three years working under Herb Boxer. During his final season as an assistant, the Huskies finished 20-20-1, their best record in four years.

Pearson moved on from Michigan Tech to Michigan in 1988. As an assistant to Red Berenson, Pearson helped land players that led the Wolverines to two national titles and 21 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.

“It’s not most talented team that always wins,” said Pearson. “You take the team that’s working together and working hard, on most nights, they’ve got a chance to win.”

While Berenson deservedly gets the credit for his impressive run with the Wolverines, few outside of the hockey world know just how much Berenson relied on his top recruiter to help keep him in the national conversation on a yearly basis.

“Mel was the guy that orchestrated a lot of their on-ice practices, without the pressure of being the head coach,” said Nebraska-Omaha head coach Dean Blais. “I know Mel, and I knew he’d come up here and have success. I’m just surprised it has happened that fast, as is everybody else.”

With that impressive resume, it seemed just a matter of time before Pearson would have a team of his own to run. This season, he’s getting that chance.

A program-changer

After a disastrous 2010-11 season in which the Huskies started 3-0-2 but won just once more over the next 33 games, Russell stepped down. Athletic director Suzanne Sanregret knew she would need either the best head coach she could find or the assistant coach most ready to take the next step. In the end, she was able to land the top assistant coach.

“I was looking for a program-changer,” said Sanregret. “After conversations with people that know hockey, that I trust who know college hockey now, we knew that Mel that could be that person. I thought we would see noticeable change and I believed in what he could do.”

Before the season began, the Huskies were picked to yet again finish last in the WCHA preseason media poll. Using that lack of outside expectations to his advantage, Pearson and his staff have led the Huskies to a double-digit win total, and more victories in WCHA play than the last three seasons combined.

“It’s relieving just in a sense that I feel we are accomplishing something,” said assistant captain Jordan Baker. “We want to get the program back into the winning tradition and start the legacy over again.”

Pearson’s staff has tried to make it fun for the players to come to the rink day in and day out. Pearson shared stories about his experiences at Michigan with his players, including sharing the ice with NHL superstars like Sidney Crosby, and they have responded by working hard for him and for themselves.

“I told them about Sidney Crosby, and the thing that impressed me most about Sidney Crosby is that he did every drill properly,” said Pearson. “I told the players that we want you to do every drill the right way as hard as you can to get better.”

Learning much over the course of his tenure at Michigan, Pearson has taken much from Berenson that he has begun to implement with the Huskies, including using one-on-one discussions on the bench during play as an opportunity to teach.

“One of the big aspects from the coaching staff is that emphasis on positivity,” said senior captain Brett Olson. “The biggest thing is making sure you are ready for your next shift. They are really trying to facilitate a good atmosphere for the guys.”

Instilling confidence

Pearson hasn’t just settled for wins. He and his staff continually challenge the players to be better.

One skater in particular Pearson has spent much time with is sophomore Jacob Johnstone. Johnstone’s numbers aren’t as impressive as they were when he was a freshman, but Pearson believes that he can accomplish more. Pearson compares him to a former Wolverines forward.

“Jake is only scratching the surface of how good a hockey player he is going to be,” said Pearson. “Louie Caporusso last year was really struggling offensively. We kept pushing Louie that he had to be better. [With Jacob,] we are just trying to get him to be a more complete player.”

With the confidence that Pearson’s staff has been showing Olson, Baker, Johnstone and their teammates, who have desired to be part of the solution since they joined Michigan Tech, the team is having the opportunity to be just that this season.

“Any time you get into a situation where you are not winning, it’s tough,” said Olson. “It’s great to get a little bit of success out of it this year.”

While this turnaround of fortunes may not be as impressive as what Jeff Blashill was able to accomplish in one season at Western Michigan last year, or what Don Lucia did in his first season at Colorado College in 1993-94, it is similar to the upturn experienced by Blais at Nebraska-Omaha and Lucia during his first season at Minnesota.

At Michigan Tech, two coaches have been able to boast better records in one season than their predecessors since John MacInnes retired. Newell Brown improved on Herb Boxer’s .250 winning percentage by posting a .354 in his first campaign, while Bob Mancini upped Brown’s final season percentage of .423 to .527 in his first season.

This season, Pearson has raised the bar for Huskies’ coaches by improving the team’s winning percentage by over .300 from last season, and that number could end up higher before all is said and done.

While the Huskies continue to learn how to win, they have also become closer as a team. Considering that the roster boasts two sets of brothers and two sets of cousins, the players have bonded into a big family, and that hasn’t been missed by the coaching staff.

“It maybe is a fine line because, at times, that can maybe create some little cliques,” said Huskies assistant coach Damon Whitten. “I think a lot stems from our leadership, from coach Pearson and our seniors. Our seniors have done a really good job of getting guys together and making sure they are all on the same page.”

It remains to be seen whether the Huskies (13-15-4, 10-10-4 WCHA) have enough in the tank down the stretch to snatch one of those WCHA home playoff spots that have proven so elusive over the years. Even if they aren’t successful, however, the building blocks appear to be in place for the Huskies to sustain this early success during the course of the Pearson era.

“Winning is an attitude,” said Blais. “Losing is not acceptable. There is a way to get that across to your team. It starts with the head coach.”

The culture at Michigan Tech is changing.


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  • Guest

    Glad to see Mel doing so well. Everyone in Ann Arbor knows how great a coach he is and we were expecting him to replace Red some day. Hopefully that will still come to pass, but in the mean time it’s great he’s getting to experience being a head coach and turning around his alma mater.

    • Yooperhockey

      Mel is not going anywhere. Mel is going to save the program that other coaches ie watters and Russell have dismantled the hockey program.

      • Guest

        Oh, I don’t know about that. Don’t forget his initial reaction was to stay at Michigan before changing his mind later. If he’s given the opportunity, he will definitely consider coming back.

        When the time finally comes for Red to retire, it will be a tough decision for Mel to make. He’s made a lot of history in Ann Arbor, and I suspect it’ll be pretty close to 50/50, depending on just how stable he can make MTU.

        • Richard Hall

          Trust us, he will not leave MTU when Red retires.

          • Geoffrey Chiles

            Nothing is for certain.  It’ll be a tough decision, to be sure, but I see Mel returning to Ann Arbor. 

            Where would you rather coach/recruit?

          • Burnt Orange Husky

            Michigan is a football school. The hockey and basketball arenas are named after football coaches.

            Ann Arbor is a quaint little town but it has none of the amenities of a big city like Madison or Columbus or the friendliness of a small town like Houghton. I grew up in Ann Arbor and every time I go back to visit my mom, I’m amazed how small it feels. Wal-Mart? Nope, gotta go to Ypsi or Saline. Ditto for Home Depot, Sams, Costco. Over half of the commercial real estate in town is owned by the U of M which pays no taxes so property taxes for the rest are sky high. When I was there a few months ago, someone told me the city council is even considering a CITY income tax.

            No skiing. Co-eds are “plain” compared to other Big Ten schools. Can’t buy a decent pasty. All that plus you’re stuck playing in the Big Ten conference, i.e., no Alaska trips, no Colorado. Happy Valley isn’t that happy these days.

            Plus, if Mel goes back to Michigan there’s no upside. If he wins, he’s just continuing Red’s system, if he loses, he’s a failure. At Tech, it’s nothing but UP side (no pun intended). He’ll be the guy who saved the program and brought it back to prominence, a success where others have failed. If you want to see Michigan’s future, take a look at Tech’s past after MacInnes retired.

          • Guest

            You’ve said so many short-sighted and completely incorrect things, it’s tough to know where to start. I’ll default to sequentially:

            Michigan is mostly known for it’s football program because we happen to be good at it and it also happens to be the most popular sport in America. Last I checked, being good at a different sport doesn’t make you any less of school that loves another sport, and Michigan is a huge example of this. Don’t think we’re a hockey school? You should try taking in a game at Yost. We bring in way more students than the vast majority of any other school, and every single one of us pays over $200 for our student tickets. Most other schools, even schools who have no hope at being competitive in anything BUT hockey, can’t bring in students by offering them free admission. I’d also challenge any other school to sell out an event like the Big Chill even scaled to their own school’s size.

            Yost is named after a football coach because it was not originally an ice arena, it was a practice facility, then the basketball arena, and then finally home to the hockey team. Renaming a building as classic as Yost would have been completely pointless, particularly with “Yost Field House” etched into it.

            I also can’t believe you would criticize a town for not having a readily-available Walmart. I guess I didn’t know that association with a company that is selling our country off to China was an important part of being a town capable of fostering a “hockey school.” We may not have a Walmart, but we do have two Meijers and plenty of small-businesses that are part of what make Ann Arbor great.

            Skiing isn’t exactly something common to most any college town, big or small. For those that have it, it is certainly a nice thing to have, but plenty of small schools that are only D1 in hockey don’t have on or near campus skiing facilities. We don’t all have campuses near hills.

            If you believe that there are not cute girls in Ann Arbor, then clearly you’ve been drinking with too many Spartans. That’s something they like to tell themselves to feel better about the fact we care more about beating Ohio State than them. My experience with Spartans is that they don’t seem to like going out in public without a half-pound of make-up, either, which really detracts from any looks they actually have when they no longer have a natural skin color on any part of their face. Also, insert joke about there being no women at Michigan Tech here (although I know this to not be true as well, although that is evidently a more recent phenomenon).

            There is no “stuck” to playing in the Big Ten. Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have four of the most successful hockey programs of all time. Playing each other more often is something we very much look forward to. Plus, the fact that there will be only six Big Ten schools means we have a large non-conference slate with which we can continue playing our former conference foes. Our anticipation of B1G hockey has always been with that fact also in mind. If more B1G schools joined and made that not the case anymore, that would still be a win, as it would mean growth of the sport.

            Finally, you’re implication that our program is only as deep as Red shows your complete lack of knowledge into the sports college roots. Michigan is currently playing it’s 90th year of hockey, and it has played them all consecutively. Michigan and Minnesota are the only two notable hockey programs that have never cut their program for any reason, be it the Great Depression, World War II, or anything else. Michigan Tech, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and many other programs have all cut their programs for some time for various different reasons, but Michigan has always been dedicated to maintaining a hockey program. Our very own Vic Heyliger was the mastermind behind the NCAA tournament and it’s original incarnation held at The Broadmoor. We weren’t too bad at winning it, either, making it to the tournament all ten years it was held there and winning six national championships. Our history is not without dark years, much like the history of any program, but it runs at least as rich and deep as any other.

            Mel has been instrumental in our success during his tenure here as an assistant coach. Red is certainly the head coach, not some version of Joe Paterno, but Mel has been here for so long in no small part due to his role in the program. He’s been a part of much of Red has built here, and taking the reins as the head coach at Michigan would put him in complete control of what he has already spent decades building. That’s not to say that he would not give that up for what he builds at Michigan Tech (and that will all likely depend on just how much longer Red goes), but to insinuate that Mel does not have a deep connection to Ann Arbor, particularly for all the reasons you listed, is incredibly foolish. If any of that were even remotely true, he would have left a long, long time ago. Mel’s contributions, I might add, are quite common knowledge to Michigan hockey fans as well.

            There is also no fear in me that Mel couldn’t handle the head job at Michigan. He’s a phenomenal coach, as exhibited in the turnaround of Tech this year. The upside for him is not only in returning to the program he helped rebuild, but also in the resources available to him at Michigan. Coaching and developing good players into playing on good teams is one thing, being able to recruit the top talent and develop them the same way is quite another. We have the national development program just a couple miles away from us, and recruiting whomever we want is a pretty easy sell.

            I would further like to point out that John MacInnes hails from The University of Michigan. If our program was as second-rate as you think it is just because we happen to excel in other sports as well, Michigan Tech would have no significant history at all due to the loss of it’s greatest coach.

            I will, however, concede the point on taxes. Those do suck pretty bad around here, but something tells me a coach’s salary is more than enough to handle it, and player’s don’t pay property taxes because they are either in the dorms or renting off-campus.

          • Yooperhockey

            If Mel was to leave we would still have Steve Shields, a future legend coach.

          • Richard Hall

            I don’t care, Tech’s hockey program is still older than Michigan’s. Michigan judged their program on whether they could beat Tech for quite a long time.

          • Guest

            Oh no, their program is a few years older. That sure didn’t save it when the budget got tight and it didn’t seem to be a priority for the university and it ended up cut for a few years.

            Too bad they couldn’t get George Gipp to stay home and play hockey. Maybe that would have helped.

          • GeorgeGipp

            I thought they dug up George Gipp to save the MTU Huskies hockey program.

          • Anony

            you my friend, are an idiot.  A simple wikipedia search reveals ann arbor isn’t a “quaint little town”

          • Yooperhockey

            Maybe he meant Ann Arbor north ie Houghton.

          • Anony

            you my friend, are an idiot.  A simple wikipedia search reveals ann arbor isn’t a “quaint little town”