When East Meets West, Unexpectedly

Anticipate the difficult by managing the easy. — Lao Tzu, 6th century BC

What better concept to define this year’s Michigan Wolverines than the underlying principles of Taoism, an Eastern philosophy that values a universe that is balanced, ordered, harmonious?

Tao (or dao) translates loosely as “the way” or “the road.” This year, the way of the Wolverines was one of balance and the road to Denver harmonious — and wholly unexpected.

While sporting competition tends to be described in aggressive, masculine, warlike ways, in reality successful teams possess a rare, subtle alchemy that is difficult to define and even harder to sustain.

This year’s Michigan team has managed to balance two against 11, laissez-faire against tightly wound, and image against improbable reality.

Two + Eleven = No. 1

This year’s Michigan roster included 12 freshmen at the start of the season — nearly half the squad, 10 of them skaters — and just two seniors. But no matter how good this Wolverine rookie class is, quality of character met quantity of highly-touted newcomers to shape this campaign right from the start.

“We weren’t quite sure what to expect out of this team,” said associate head coach Mel Pearson, “but we were led by Kevin Porter and Chad Kolarik, two seniors who came back to Michigan to make a difference and they have this year.”

Everyone knows about the difference Porter and Kolarik have made in the win-loss column for the Wolverines. The two seniors have lined with freshman winger Max Pacioretty to produce 76 goals and 78 assists — the highest-scoring trio in the nation — and the two seniors have a dozen game-winning goals between them.

Porter, one-third of this year’s Hobey Baker Hat Trick, is third in the nation in points per game (1.41), has more goals than anyone else in the country this season (33), has scored 15 on the power play and has a plus-minus rating of +34.

With 54 points, Kolarik is third among all scorers nationally behind Porter and Boston College’s Nathan Gerbe — another Hobey Baker Hat Trick finalist — and has netted four shorthanded markers, with seven of Michigan’s game-winners and a plus-minus rating of +28.

But it’s what these two did off the ice last fall that helped determine the path the entire season would take.

“Porter and I stressed early on that we had to make sure everyone felt like they belonged,” said Kolarik, who was part of a two-man rookie class in the 2004-05 season. That year’s roster included talent like Jeff Tambellini, T.J. Hensick, Andrew Ebbett.

“My freshman year we weren’t really part of the team,” said Kolarik. “There were a lot great players on that team. It was just the two of us, and that’s not something that brings a winning atmosphere.”

Kolarik said that he, Porter and junior assistant captain Tim Miller went to the rookies’ dorms early to visit them and initiated team-building activities to solidify the unity they felt the team lacked in their underclassmen years.

One of the first things the captains did was “set up a trip to Camp Faholo,” said Kolarik. Faholo Camp and Conference Center, a faith-based conference center in Grass Lake, Mich., 30 miles west of Ann Arbor, where participants can use the climbing wall, zip line and challenge course to foster trust in each other.

“We knew it was a good place,” said Kolarik. “We stayed a night and we became sort of like a family. We told each other things you wouldn’t want anyone else to know, things that only our teammates will know.”

It also helped that the Wolverines played six of their first eight CCHA games this season on the road, something that always helps with the bonding experience. The travel must have worked; their first league win of the season over Northern Michigan launched a 12-game win streak for the Wolverines.

But no amount of togetherness can overcome a lack of willingness, and these freshmen have been willing and enthusiastic participants in their Michigan indoctrination.

“These are all great kids,” said Porter. “They come to the rink, they listen, they work hard, they do what they’re told. I think that’s really helped out. You don’t catch them screwing around too often and they don’t cause any problems, which makes it a lot easier on myself and Chad … and all the coaches.”

The freshmen have even overcome adversity in their short tenure in Ann Arbor. At midseason, freshman defenseman Kevin Quick was dismissed from the team when it was discovered that he had classmate Carl Hagelin’s credit card without permission. Hagelin, a native of Sweden who had lived in the U.S. for less than six months, was Quick’s roommate.

“We rallied around Carl,” said Kolarik. “It brought us a little bit closer. He [Quick] was a quiet kid and he stuck to himself and he made a mistake, and we forgive him.”

Pearson can’t say enough about his seniors. “They demonstrate day in and day out, with their work ethic, with their professionalism on the ice in practice, they’re our two hardest-working players. I think they set a great example for our young players to understand what it takes to become a good player.

“Along with that, they’ve done an excellent job off the ice with our young kids. They integrated those young players into our program early in September and really made those freshmen feel at home.

“I’ve been here for 20 years in Michigan and I can say that this is one of the tightest, closest-knit teams we’ve had since I’ve been here.”

Yin and Yang

Conventional sport wisdom says that when a team is disciplined yet relaxed, the team increases its chances for success. The same can be said of individual players as well.

Billy Sauer is having a career season. The junior goaltender struggled through his first two years with Michigan, having come to the program as a 17-year-old freshman and was pushed perhaps a little too soon into the net when Al Montoya left after his junior year.

This year, however, Sauer is at the top of his game and his improvement is a key element to the Wolverines’ success.

“The first couple of years I almost took things way too serious instead of being loose,” said Sauer.

Enter Josh Blackburn, the former Wolverine goaltender whose task was to follow Marty Turco. Blackburn has been working as a volunteer coach with Sauer and freshmen goalies Bryan Hogan and Shawn Hunwick since before the start of the season.

“Josh has been great,” said Sauer. “He’s been here a couple times a week and we talk about a lot of stuff. He’s gone through everything I’ve gone through now.”

“It’s a scary place to play,” said Blackburn. “You come in as a freshman and it’s yours to lose, yours to earn. There’s a lot of pressure, and everyone is counting on you. There’s Yost Arena, the crowds, your teammates, everybody — you just don’t want to disappoint anyone.”

Goalies are notoriously tightly wound, but Blackburn has always been a laid-back guy. He’s easy to like and hard to fluster between the pipes. From 1999-2002, Blackburn’s career goals-against average was 2.29, which ranks first all-time at UM. He’s third among Wolverine goaltenders in career wins and save percentage, and second in games played and shutouts.

At the end of his 2004-05 season with the Corpus Christi Rayz (CHL), the 29-year-old Blackburn and returned to Michigan with his young family.

Pearson, who asked Blackburn last summer to work with the UM goaltenders, said that the program is “fortunate” to have him. “In the last couple of years we really haven’t had an individual being here two or three times a week to help with our goaltenders. It’s not only helped Billy Sauer but also Bryan Hogan and Shaun Hunwick.”

“He’s definitely relaxed,” said Sauer of Blackburn — or “Blackie,” as the players call the towering blond originally from Alaska. “He told me, ‘Be Billy Sauer. Don’t be anybody else.’ Just having him here has made a huge difference.”

Blackburn, however, said that Sauer deserves credit for his own success. “Most of it is Billy. I just try to make sure we’re building good habits and not developing bad ones, stay real close to the basics.

“I think age is a big thing, too. It’s just the maturity of another year. When I came in I was 19 and turned 20 my freshmen year and I was scared to death.” Sauer turned 20 in February.

Blackburn said that he’s impressed upon Sauer that the younger goalie should “sort of live in the now, and enjoy it for what it is.

“It’s a game, and you get to play at a great school in a great arena.”

The Nature of Truth

Michigan is the team that CCHA fans love to hate. Perceived as elitist rather than elite, arrogant rather than altruistic, Wolverines in recent years have earned the reputation as high-maintenance players, justifiably or no.

But every fan knows that a team that plays solid defensive hockey is often a team with players capable of making great sacrifices, players who sacrifice their bodies by blocking shots, players willing to grind it out in the corners.

Named a captain at midseason by the UM coaches, junior defenseman Mark Mitera logs nearly 25 minutes per game, has blocked 65 shots this season, and is second on the team in plus/minus (+33) only to Kevin Porter.

As Porter and Kolarik assumed significant leadership roles to balance out a young team, so has Mitera. The only upperclassman on the blue line, Mitera has helped a young defense solidify into one of the best in the nation.

“He’s a tremendous asset to our team,” said Pearson. “He might not put up the numbers some of the other players do, but he consistently plays against the other teams’ top lines, shutting them down.

“At one point early in the year, he had only been on for one even-strength goal against up until Christmas, and that helped us to integrate those young defensemen. He’s been nothing but excellent for us all year.”

A year ago, the Wolverines were allowing 3.15 goals per game on average, ranking them 37th in the country defensively. This year, they’re fourth, averaging two goals allowed per game. And typical of how UM has succeeded this year, the drastic change has been a team effort.

“We have a team that is still more offensively potent as it was last year,” said Sauer, “but we’ve taken the pride in our goals against. From the forwards forechecking and the defense blocking shots, our team is more defense-minded.”

“We’re not a bunch of prima donnas,” said Kolarik. “We’re a gritty, hard-working team.”

Which may be the main reason, of course, for Michigan’s appearance in this year’s Frozen Four.

“We’re a family,” said Kolarik, “and I think that’s what we’re all about this year — being a close group from the staff all the way down to the players.”

Ah, enlightenment.