HOUGHTON, Mich. — 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.
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.”
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.