ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Nearly 50 years later, Mel Pearson has vivid memories of the first tough hockey decision he had to make. It was 1973, and he was a teen, living in Edina, Minn.
After playing one season for the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the World Hockey Association, his father, George “Mel” Pearson, had decided to end a hockey-playing career that spanned nearly two decades, and included 38 games in the NHL.
The Pearson family was headed back north -- nearly 1,000 miles north -- to George’s hometown of Flin Flon, Man., where the elder Pearson would coach a junior hockey team. Mel, having just gotten a taste of the Minnesota rink scene, was in no hurry to leave the State of Hockey, especially to live at what might as well have been the North Pole. The choice was to follow his father to what seemed like the edge of the Arctic Circle, or live with a family in Edina and finish high school in Minnesota.
“I'm not the smartest guy, but that's probably one of the best decisions I ever made, to live with a billet family for three years, sophomore junior and senior year,” said Pearson, via Zoom from his office at the University of Michigan. His Minnesota hockey career ended just one win shy of the ultimate dream. As a senior for Edina East in 1977, Pearson and the Hornets beat Roseau and Grand Rapids en route to the state championship game, but fell to a Cinderella team from Rochester John Marshall in the finale.
High hopes by the Huron
Now in his fourth season as the head coach at Michigan, Pearson is attempting to lead what is not necessarily a revitalization of the Wolverines' program. They have been one of the better-known and more successful teams in college hockey for the past 30 years, most of which included Pearson on staff either as an assistant coach or as the current man in charge. Michigan’s nine NCAA titles are the most in college hockey history. But seven of those came before the Rolling Stones released their first album in the spring of 1964.
In 33 seasons with Gordon “Red” Berenson at the helm of the program -- 23 of those with Pearson as an assistant -- the Wolverines won 65% of their games and made 11 trips to the NCAA Frozen Four, but won the national title just twice. While most college hockey fan bases would be delighted with one or two titles to look back upon, there is a higher expectation at Michigan, and Pearson knows his mission is clear: win a game on a Saturday in April.
To that end, the Wolverines are accumulating an impressive array of young talent that their fans hope will eventually mean a 10th NCAA title banner hanging from the rafters of historic Yost Ice Arena, on the Michigan campus. When the Minnesota Gophers won a pair of games at Yost in early December, the Wolverines were without five players who had been selected by USA Hockey for the World Junior Championship roster. On the NHL Central Scouting list of 31 projected first round picks in the 2021 draft, five of them have committed to play for Pearson, or are already on campus.
Wolverines from the west
To see Pearson and his assistants recruiting in Minnesota is actually a nod to the first titles won by the Wolverines. The success of the Michigan program in the 1950s, when the Wolverines claimed five NCAA titles in the decade, was helped at least in part by an influx of recruits from Minnesota’s Iron Range. Long before he was Pearson’s coach at Edina and led the Hornets to eight state prep titles, Willard Ikola was a goalie from Eveleth, Minn., who made the trek roughly 700 miles east to Ann Arbor for college, and backstopped Wolverines’ national titles in 1951 and ‘52.
The 2020-21 Wolverines have a pair of Minnesotans -- senior forward Jack Becker from Dellwood/Mahtomedi and sophomore defenseman Keaton Pehrson from Lakeville North. Over the summer, former St. Thomas Academy center Jackson Hallum committed to play for Pearson in a year or two. It is a recruiting trend that the coach plans to continue.
“We're hoping to get more. We'd like to get in there,” said Pearson, recalling the Wolverines’ overtime game-winner in the 1998 NCAA title game was scored by Josh Langfeld, of Coon Rapids, Minn. “In Minnesota, the kids can all skate, and the way the game is going, the way we like to play at Michigan is we like to get up and down the sheet. So we try to get involved with a few kids and we hit on one or two here and there.”
Upward mobility in the U.P.
Pearson likes to joke that in those 23 seasons as Berenson’s assistant coach, he “was fired about eight times and quit probably 10 times.” Their final game together was in St. Paul in 2011, when the Wolverines fell to Minnesota Duluth in overtime, in another NCAA title game. A few weeks later, Pearson made another tough hockey decision, with the head coaching job at his alma mater open.
Michigan Tech was a national powerhouse in the 1970s, playing against the Gophers in three consecutive NCAA title games and winning one of them, in 1975. Two years later, when Pearson was choosing a college, heading to the Upper Peninsula to play for legendary coach John MacInnes was not a tough decision. The Huskies went to the Frozen Four in 1981 when Pearson was a senior, and he spent much of the 1980s as an assistant coach there before heading to Ann Arbor to work for Berenson in 1988.
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The Huskies program was a true reclamation project by 2011, when Jamie Russell resigned after eight seasons with minimal on-ice success. Pearson, who jokes that he had been waiting for Berenson to retire for about a decade by then, did his homework.
“It came to a point where Red was still coaching and the Michigan Tech job had come up and it’s my alma mater. I went into the (Michigan) athletic director’s office and said, ‘If something happens to Red tomorrow, will I be the head coach?’ And he said he couldn’t promise me anything,” Pearson recalled. “He said, ‘But I will tell you this, you know you'll be a candidate, but you’ll be a better candidate if you go up to Michigan Tech or another school and prove yourself.”
After interviewing and initially turning the Huskies down in April, Pearson changed his mind and accepted the job a few weeks later, heading back to the school and the conference where he had first gotten a taste of college hockey. In six seasons with the Huskies, Pearson got them back into the NCAA tournament for the first time since he was a player, and directed a WCHA title in 2017, which was the program’s first conference crown since a former Wolverines football player named Gerald Ford was in the White House.
Ann Arbor return
When Berenson retired, at age 77, Pearson was the obvious choice to head back to Ann Arbor and take over the program where he had spent the bulk of his coaching career. After leading the program on its 25th all-time Frozen Four trip in 2018, the Wolverines have been a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big Ten for the past two seasons, falling to the Gophers in round one of the conference playoffs in 2019 after star defenseman Quinn Hughes, now turning heads for the Vancouver Canucks, was injured.
Michigan gave us basketball’s Fab Five and football’s Big House, where 110,000 fans pack in to see the Wolverines play football on non-pandemic Saturdays in the fall. It is also a renowned academic institution, with a business and marketing school -- where former Fargo Force goalie Strauss Mann, the top netminder in the Big Ten last season, is carrying a Dean’s List GPA -- ranked in the top five nationally. On the ice, Michigan gave us college hockey’s first dynasty, with legendary coaching names like Berenson, Vic Heyliger and Al Renfrew all leading the Wolverines to the sport’s pinnacle in the past.
Pearson can see his predecessors’ work at every practice, just by glancing into the Yost rafters and viewing the myriad banners hung there. He can also see his former boss regularly, with Berenson not afraid to stop by the rink or pop into his old office to give Pearson a few tips on the power play structure. The school named the Yost ice sheet after Berenson a few years ago, and even with no fans allowed in the rink due to COVID-19 recently, the former coach was there in person, his private suite, watching both games versus the Gophers in early December.
For Pearson, it was another reminder of the job he inherited, and the constant expectation that this kid -- now in his 60s -- from Canada by way of Edina will help add more banners to the arena’s rafters before too long.
“I'm just the gatekeeper,” Pearson said, rattling off the names of former coaches Heyliger, Renfrew, Berenson and Dan Farrell. “I'm just trying to elevate the program to keep it up, where those gentlemen did.”