Michigan’s NHL-Ready Hockey Team Plays in Frozen Four

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Mel Pearson, the University of Michigan men’s hockey coach, gestured with his hand toward a small box in his office. His voice quavered as he described his players’ hopes of winning the upcoming Frozen Four, college hockey’s premier event.

“I just want it so bad for the players,” Pearson said. “They’ve been through so much, and they are such great kids.”

Pearson was trying to explain that he has already carved out so many memories, but his voice trailed off and he burst into tears. He stood up, grabbed a tissue from his desk, apologized, shook his head and laughed. When asked what he had been pointing to, Pearson opened a small wooden box filled with a dozen rings, all encrusted with the signature Michigan M. They included two that commemorated national championship teams in 1996 and 1998, when Pearson was an assistant to his mentor, Red Berenson.

Like Pearson, Michigan hockey has enjoyed its share of glory. It has been to more Frozen Fours (26) and won more hockey championships (nine) than any other university. But six of those titles were won before 1960, and none have come in almost a quarter century.

The current group of Wolverines, a gaudy assemblage of high-end talent never before seen on one college roster — with a back story of disappointment and sacrifice — has yet to join the pantheon.

As Michigan enters the Frozen Four against the University of Denver in their national semifinal on Thursday in Boston, the pressure is on the Wolverines and their glamorous roster. Minnesota and Minnesota State face off in the other semifinal, but none of the other three teams — in fact, no team in college hockey history — features a lineup like the one Pearson recruited.

Michigan boasts seven N.H.L. first-round draft picks, including an unprecedented four of the top-five selections from 2021. That is more top-five picks than the Tampa Bay Lightning have on their roster, and the Lightning won the last two Stanley Cups.

“It will probably never happen again,” said freshman Luke Hughes, the No. 4 pick of the Devils. “And we all know we will never play together again, and we only have one shot at this. I don’t want to say there is pressure, but there is a lot of desire. And maybe a little bit of pressure, too.”

On that night in July, minutes before the Devils chose Hughes, Owen Power, a defenseman from Ontario, became Michigan’s first No. 1 overall pick when Buffalo selected him.

Matty Beniers, a slick playmaker from Massachusetts, was taken No. 2 by the Seattle Kraken. Hughes, whose brother Jack was taken No. 1 overall by the Devils in 2019 and leads the team in goals this season, was scooped up next at No. 4, and the Columbus Blue Jackets took center Kent Johnson at No. 5. Even Alabama football never had a top five like that (it came close, with three taken in the top five in the 1948 N.F.L. draft).

Watching the proceedings at home, Pearson gulped. In less than an hour, practically his whole power play was gobbled up.

“It happened so fast,” Pearson said. “They were interviewing Matty and then bang, there goes Luke Hughes off the board and then bang, there goes Kent.”

Later in the first round, the Florida Panthers took Mackie Samoskevich with the 24th pick. Those five joined Johnny Beecher and Brendan Brisson, who were taken in the first rounds in 2019 and 2020, to give Michigan an astonishing seven first-rounders.

In college hockey, players can stay in school after they are drafted, and the N.H.L. teams retain their rights. All seven picks, plus six more lower-round draftees, chose to come back to Ann Arbor for one final chance to play together, and one last shot at a national championship.

“It’s not easy to turn down an N.H.L. contract when you are drafted first, second, fifth,” said Nick Blankenburg, the Wolverines’ senior captain. “A lot of praise and respect for those guys coming back.”

As a huge, sports-centric university in a Power Five conference, Michigan has many built-in advantages over smaller schools, including lavish facilities, financial might, and for the players, a history of developing players into commercially viable talent. Quinn Hughes, Luke and Jack’s older brother, played two years for Michigan and was the No. 7 overall pick by the Vancouver Canucks in 2018.

Former Michigan players are dotted around the N.H.L., both on the ice and in the broadcast booth. Billy Jaffe, the Boston Bruins analyst for NESN, played at Michigan in 1988, the year Pearson started as an assistant. He said it was unusual for high draft picks to spend more than one year at the college level.

“For all of them to come back says something about the program,” Jaffe said, “and also maybe something about what happened last year with Covid.”

This season’s origin story begins a year ago in Fargo, N.D., as the Wolverines prepared to face Minnesota-Duluth in the first round of the N.C.A.A. tournament. It is part of what made Pearson so emotional. As the players awoke from their pregame naps, they saw a text message from Pearson instructing them to gather immediately in a hotel meeting room. It was only three hours until puck drop.

“Once we saw our trainer’s face, we knew what was going on,” Blankenburg said.

Two players had tested positive for the coronavirus, and the N.C.A.A. disqualified the Wolverines. Instead of playing that night, the somber group went to the arena and packed their equipment and returned to the hotel to wait for their plane home. Those who could stomach it watched Bemidji State beat Wisconsin on television.

“It was devastating,” Beniers recalled. “It’s one thing when you lose and another thing when you don’t even get a chance to play.”

Like the other top draftees, Beniers said he was already leaning toward returning to Michigan for his sophomore year because he enjoyed his freshman year so much, and the emptiness he felt after that inconclusive finale in 2021 made the decision far easier. During pre-draft meetings with N.H.L. teams, including the Kraken, Beniers told executives that if they expected him join their clubs right away, they would have to fight his mother over it.

Christine Maglione Beniers, a Boston-area lawyer — who also acted in “A Chorus Line” on Broadway — wanted her son to have the complete college experience. But th
e few games Michigan played were staged in empty arenas, classes were online and campus social life was restricted.

There will always be time to skate against 33-year-old N.H.L. bruisers like Pat Maroon and Milan Lucic.

“I don’t know what the big rush is to get to the next level when you haven’t even fully experienced this one,” Maglione Beniers said in a telephone interview. “Ultimately, it was his decision. But it’s the last chance you have to be around and play with kids your own age.”

But Michigan, with 31 wins, nine losses and one tie, is far from perfect. It lost all four of its regular-season games against Notre Dame before beating the Irish in the conference tournament, and it almost let slip away a 4-0 lead in the third period of its second-round N.C.A.A. tournament win against Quinnipiac. But the Wolverines held on to reach the program’s 26th Frozen Four, and this time with a team laden with N.H.L. talent.

“Last year ended with such a disappointment,” Power said. “We all wanted to come back and do something really big.”

Power, a quiet, 6-foot-5 defenseman, will likely play for the Sabres in Buffalo, about a 90-minute drive from his home in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. Returning to Michigan gave him one last chance to play in a 100-year-old rink with the band pumping out the fight song, to live communally with teammates and to share a dream with those whose early wish was just to get an offer from a college.

“It’s special to be a part of it,” Blankenburg said. “I’ll look back in 20 years, when I have a family, and just to be able to say I played with these guys, and the stuff what we went through, I’ll cherish it forever.”

By Harriet