Former Edina Hornets star Mel Pearson, now in his fourth season behind the bench for the University of Michigan hockey team, is not known for his temper. Unless you are a referee and you miss an obvious offside call, you’re not likely to hear him raise his voice.
So amid all of the challenges that 2020 has brought, Pearson, isn’t going to get rattled by having players out of the lineup and no fans in his building this week. Pearson revitalized the Michigan Tech program in the early 2010s before returning to Ann Arbor, Mich., where he had been an assistant coach for more than two decades and helped produce a pair of national champions,
Due to training camps for the World Junior tournament, the Wolverines will be without five key players, and will not have their normal boisterous — and often mildly offensive — student section on their side when they host the unbeaten Minnesota Gophers on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at Yost Ice Arena.
The Gophers will have three defensemen missing in service of USA Hockey as well, meaning that what looked a month ago like a matchup of the Big Ten’s top two teams will have all sorts of caveats attached. But again, you will not hear Pearson complaining.
“It creates some issues, but it is what it is. I just feel bad for the fans. We were looking at this as a hell of a series when we got in it,” Pearson said over the weekend. The Michigan student section, known as the “Children of Yost” is well-known around college hockey for their relentless attention to the opposing team, most notably the goalie.
Last season, when the Gophers visited Yost, the target was the return of goalie Jack LaFontaine, who had played for the Wolverines as a freshman and sophomore before transferring to Minnesota. He said he heard an amazing array of personal information from his former schoolmates, including a notable number of comments about one of his ex-girlfriends. LaFontaine will play in a quiet, mostly empty rink on Tuesday, and he is not necessarily warm to the idea.
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“I love being the villain. There’s nothing I love more than going to Yost and hearing a couple thousand fans using my name in the worst way possible,” LaFontaine said in a preseason interview. “So I love being the villain. My mom’s not going to like to hear that, but that’s how I feel.”
LaFontaine, who was named college hockey’s goalie of the month for November, has been doing his best work quieting the opponents’ offense, as the Gophers have allowed seven goals in six games. Michigan, which had the Big Ten’s top goalie in former Fargo Force standout Strauss Mann last season, had the opposite issue in their last game, falling 9-5 at Penn State and seeing Pearson pull Mann in the second period.
“That was a one-off, we hope. It was just a weird night. We couldn’t kill penalties and we had a couple that found their way to the net. If you’re in hockey long enough, you’re probably on the wrong end of one of those,” Pearson said, reflecting on a Wolverines future 10-year NHL man who had a similar forgettable night once. “I remember one time we had Steve Shields and he gave up 10 at Lake Superior State one night. I think we got beat 10-cobb and the next night we beat them 4-2, so it can happen to the best of them.”
When NHL Central Scouting released its list of 2021 draft prospects, they had 31 players graded ‘A,’ which means they are likely first-round picks. Pearson has gotten commitments from five of those 31 players, meaning that the Wolverines look like the team of the future. If the Gophers can be the team of the present this week in Ann Arbor, that would suit them just fine.
The Gophers are 6-0-0 overall and in the Big Ten, while the Wolverines are 3-3-0 and trail Minnesota by 10 points in the standings already, making these games perhaps more critical for the home team.
"It will be a good series. Points are so valuable and Minnesota's running away with it right now," Pearson said. "So we've got to find a way to at least get some points from them and stay in the ballpark."
Tuesday’s game is a 7 p.m. CT start, with the Wednesday rematch facing off at 5:30 p.m. CT. Both games will be televised by Big Ten Network.