Learning on the fly, Michigan interim coach Brandon Naurato has the Wolverines Frozen Four-bound
Taking over the Michigan program less than two months before the season started, the Wolverines' new coach has them playing with confidence, for each other, and seeking their first title in 25 years.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When Brandon Naurato was named Michigan’s interim head coach in early August, he had less than two months to prepare prior to the Wolverines first game of the 2022-23 season. He got right to work on the recruiting trail, but not in the rinks in and around Detroit, or with the junior teams in Iowa or going to the homes of talented players in western Canada.
For Naurato, the recruiting mission began inside the home locker room at Yost Ice Arena.
“When I got the job I kind of had to re-recruit all of them,” said Naurato, 38, following Michigan’s overtime win over Penn State which earned the Wolverines a second consecutive trip to the Frozen Four.
Then Naurato corrected himself, saying “re-recruit” wasn’t exactly the right phrase. He immediately sought out conversations with all of Michigan’s incoming freshmen — future stars like Adam Fantilli, Gavin Brindley, Rutger McGroarty and Seamus Casey — to make sure they were still on board with the maize and blue, even after a coaching change so late in the game.
“All of those guys believed,” Naurato said. “They love Michigan and Michigan’s a place for them to get better academically and athletically. They want to take advantage of that.”
It’s also a place where they have done plenty of winning since Naurato’s first game behind the Yost bench. A November illness tore through the team and set them back in the Big Ten’s regular season race, and a talented Minnesota team ran away with that title. But the Wolverines got a measure of revenge in the playoffs, rallying late to beat the Gophers 4-3 in the conference tournament’s title game. After beating Colgate and the Nittany Lions in the Allentown Regional, Naurato brings the Wolverines to the Frozen Four in Tampa with designs on winning the Michigan program’s first NCAA title in 25 years.
While some call Fantilli the nation’s best player, Naurato doesn’t believe that skill is necessarily the key to winning two more games in Florida and bringing a shiny gold trophy back to Michigan.
“One thing I told the guys at the beginning of the year, and I think it still rings true, is that it’s not the most talented teams that win at the end, it’s the teams that play together,” Naurato said. “It’s the teams that are the closest. We’ve got a really tight team and I would say for us, we’ve had this business approach going into the playoffs this year, when we go on the road. I just tell them to have fun, don’t put too much stress on yourselves, enjoy the ride, enjoy the process and let’s just make the most of the opportunity.”
Made in the Mitten
Originally from the Detroit suburbs, Naurato played two seasons in the USHL before legendary coach Red Berenson gave him a jersey and a roster spot with the Wolverines. He played four years of college hockey, including a trip to the 2008 Frozen Four in Denver, where Michigan fell to Notre Dame in the semifinals. After bouncing around minor pro hockey for a few years, Naurato traded the skates for a whistle and a clipboard, working in player development first with a major junior team in Michigan and then with the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings for parts of three seasons.
He was an assistant coach under former Wolverines head coach Mel Pearson last season, playing a role in their run to the Frozen Four in Boston, and Naurato was elevated to the top job when Pearson was fired in August after an internal investigation revealed issues within the Michigan hockey program.
Some have joked that being given control over this Michigan roster, and a program with such history and tradition, was akin to Naurato being handed the keys to a Ferrari. Although a kid from suburban Motown might have preferred the car in that analogy was a Mustang. No matter what is in the garage, he has found that even after being around hockey most of his life, and knowing this program better than any other, there are mysteries to be solved every day.
“I think my biggest challenge is that everything’s new and you’ve got to figure a lot of things out and problem-solve on the fly,” Naurato admitted this week. “It’s important to surround yourself with the right people who have some more institutional knowledge or ask for help … We’re just figuring it out as we go.”
They have figured it out to the tune of a .712 winning percentage, and have learned to win different ways. Mostly known for relentless and dynamic offense, Michigan flexed those muscles in an 11-1 blowout over Colgate in their NCAA opener. Two days later they rallied late and found a way to beat Penn State 2-1 in overtime, limiting the also-dynamic Nittany Lions offense.
“Michigan can play defense,” Naurato said, semi-convincingly, in the press conference after that win.
FROZEN FOUR BOUND! 🧊🧊🧊🧊 @umichhockey | #GoBlue— Michigan Athletics 〽️ (@UMichAthletics) March 27, 2023
It meant the Michigan program’s record 27th Frozen Four appearance. Early in his takeover from Pearson, determined to put all of the negative vibes surrounding the program in the past, Naurato adopted the “Good dudes only” mantra for his team and his locker room. With a chance at a national title in his first season awaiting in Tampa, the dudes in maize and blue seem to have bought in.
“It’s been awesome,” Naurato said. “It’s been a crazy year, but I’ve learned so much and I don’t take any situation as a negative.”