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Fired hockey coach Mel Pearson speaks for the first time on ‘what really went down' at Michigan

After 40 years as a college hockey coach, Mel Pearson will not be on a campus this season, having been dismissed from the University of Michigan in August. The claims against him and others there

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Mel Pearson spent five seasons as head coach at Michigan, leading the Wolverines to the Frozen Four last season.
Photos: Brian Fluharty / USA Today Sports Illustration: Eli Swanson / The Rink Live

EDINA, Minn. — In five years as the head hockey coach at the University of Michigan, Mel Pearson’s teams won nearly 60% of the time. His players went to class and graduated. The Wolverines went to the NCAA Frozen Four, twice. In this era of the transfer portal, where players can leave for any reason at any time, almost none of the Wolverines did. At the 2021 NHL Draft, four of the first five players selected had chosen to play for Pearson’s team, and did so even with offers of pro hockey money being waved in front of them.

Still, there was friction with a few former Wolverines and staff. After being fired, a former Wolverines assistant coach made serious claims of things like asking players to falsify COVID-19 forms, mistreatment of women who worked with the Wolverines program and retaliation toward players and staff who spoke up to complain. A law firm spent months investigating those claims, conducting more than a dozen interviews of Pearson and others, all while the Wolverines were playing a season that ended with 31 wins, a Big Ten tournament title and a trip to the Frozen Four.

In the end, the law firm found there were cultural issues to be addressed and corrections to be made within Pearson’s hockey program. Investigators concluded in discussions with Pearson that some of his responses regarding the allegations were not truthful.

But the report concluded that the 63-year-old head coach had not retaliated against the former coach or players, nor had he violated school policy governing gender-based discrimination. His name seemingly cleared of the most serious charges, Pearson was discussing a new contract with the Michigan athletic director over the summer.

Then, less than two months before the start of the current hockey season, Pearson was fired. He quietly left the school that had employed him for 28 years, as an assistant coach and a head coach. One of his former assistant coaches was named the Wolverines interim coach.

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Pearson has not talked about his departure from Michigan since Aug. 5, when the school announced his firing . But recently, Pearson chose to break his silence via an exclusive conversation with The Rink Live.

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In 2012, head coach Mel Pearson, far right, and goalie coach Steve Shields, far left, helped direct Michigan Tech to the championship of the Great Lakes Invitational at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
Contributed / Michigan Tech Athletics

A bitter end

Pearson recalls hiring his former goaltender to his coaching staff. However, the head coach began to hear rumblings and made another decisive move.

Steve Shields was successfully recruited twice by Mel Pearson. In 1990, Pearson – then an assistant coach at the University of Michigan – convinced Shields, a talented goalie from Toronto, to become a Wolverine.

Shields played four years at Michigan, then logged almost 250 games in the NHL, retiring from professional hockey in 2007. When Pearson was named the new head coach at Michigan Tech in 2011, he reached out to Shields again, at the urging of friends concerned for the retired goaltender, who was living in California.

Shields accepted Pearson's offer and became the volunteer goaltender coach for the Huskies.

That was the beginning of a coaching partnership between Shields and Pearson that included two college hockey programs, and ultimately ended with both men out of work.

Shields was on Pearson’s staff with the Huskies for one season and part of another, while living rent-free in a room above Pearson’s garage for a time. After leaving Houghton, Shields spent a year with the Florida Panthers, then was hired at Michigan by former head coach Red Berenson. Pearson inherited Shields when the former was hired as head coach of the Wolverines in 2017. Pearson said there were good times in their relationship, but by the summer of 2021, things had soured.

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“I wanted to move on from Steve because I just didn’t think he was healthy to be around our team after my first year,” Pearson recalled. “He’s one of those guys where, if he doesn’t agree with your coaching style or your recruiting or how you handle players, or any idea that doesn’t align with him, you’re doing it wrong and you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Pearson had heard numerous reports that Shields was working to turn some players and staff against the head coach, and undermine Pearson’s leadership. Things came to a head on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. As documented in a written review of the meeting shared with The Rink Live, Pearson, with assistant coach Billy Muckalt present, summoned Shields to the head coach’s office. Pearson offered thanks for Shields’ past contributions to the hockey program, then said that they were moving in a different direction and Shields would not be on staff for the 2021-22 season.

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In what would turn out to be his final practice as head coach at the University of Michigan, on Wednesday, April 6, 2022, Mel Pearson (with the whistle) put the Wolverines through a skate at TD Garden in Boston prior to their NCAA Frozen Four semifinal loss to Denver.
Jim Rosvold / The Rink Live

Shields did not take it well. According to meeting notes, he said to Pearson, “I’m going to get you.” Pearson ended the meeting and offered a handshake. “I’m not going to shake your f–king hand,” was Shields’ response.

After meeting with the rest of his staff to inform them of Shields’ firing later that day, there was a frank discussion about whether they would be safe, as some felt Shields may be vindictive. Pearson contacted Tiffany Raymond, a senior human resources official in the Michigan athletic department, to alert her to the firing and admit that there were some concerns about the personal safety of the remaining Wolverines hockey staff.

A few minutes later, Pearson encountered Shields in the coaches locker room inside Yost Ice Arena. As he departed, Shields patted Pearson on the back.

“Don’t worry Mel, it’s going to be OK,” Shields said. “You are going to be right where I am soon.”

A little less than a year later – on the first Friday of August, 2022, the university announced Pearson had been dismissed as Michigan’s head coach.

After his firing was revealed, Pearson was told that a Michigan staffer who had clashed with the coach in the past showed up at the home of several Wolverines hockey players – at least one of whom was underage – with alcohol. When they opened the door, the staffer said, “We got the motherf–ker. Let’s party!”

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A chance to tell his story

Following a thorough investigation into the program and alleged wrongdoings, Pearson remained publicly silent about his dismissal. Why is he speaking out now?

Pearson had no public comment on his dismissal when it happened. About his only contact with the outside world was a tweet he posted on Aug. 10. The photo showed Pearson golfing a scenic course along the west shore of Lake Michigan. “#newprofilepic” was the only text.

“I’m not trying to bury anybody or call anybody out. But there will be some things that come up to basically clear my name, and what really went down. It’s a ‘he said, she said’ and the report was never intended for this. It was intended just to find out if I discriminated against Steve Shields, or retaliated."
- Mel Pearson

A few weeks later, Pearson called The Rink Live and asked for an opportunity to tell his side of the story.

The allegations against Pearson and his hockey program had been thoroughly investigated and documented in a 68-page report issued by WilmerHale, a law firm, in early May. WilmerHale reached out to 19 people while investigating Pearson’s program. Of those, two did not respond, and 16 were interviewed.

While some of the content in the report raised questions about Pearson’s conduct as a boss, it cleared Pearson of the most serious allegations. It was thought by some of Pearson’s supporters that there was little to anything in the report that would be considered a fireable offense. Nonetheless, a few days after the law firm’s report became public in early August, Pearson was removed from the head coaching job and replaced by assistant coach Brandon Naurato on an interim basis.

On Friday, Sept. 16, Pearson met for more than an hour with The Rink Live at a hotel in Edina – the same town where Pearson had been a standout prep hockey player for the Hornets on multiple state tournament teams in the late 1970s. He shared copies of some documents and allowed The Rink Live to view, but not keep, others. No questions were off limits in the conversation.

“I’m not trying to bury anybody or call anybody out. But there will be some things that come up to basically clear my name, and what really went down,” Pearson said at the start of the interview. “It’s a ‘he said, she said’ and the report was never intended for this. It was intended just to find out if I discriminated against Steve Shields, or retaliated. That’s what it was about.”

The allegations against Pearson

The 68-page report was released to the University of Michigan on May 5 and became public in early August.

The law firm’s investigation began roughly a year ago after Shields, post-firing, alleged numerous improprieties within Pearson’s hockey program. Among them:

  • Pearson directed players to lie on their COVID-19 contact tracing forms prior to the 2021 NCAA Regional in Fargo (the Wolverines were ultimately removed from the tournament prior to their scheduled first-round game versus Minnesota Duluth due to a positive COVID test).
  • Pearson and Rick Bancroft, a former staffer in the hockey program, mistreated several women associated with the hockey program.
  • Pearson retaliated against Wolverines players and treated them unfairly.

Taking the claims in roughly chronological order, we started in Fargo, where the Wolverines were preparing to face the Bulldogs in an NCAA Midwest Regional matchup on Friday, March 26, 2021, when they abruptly learned their season was over.

COVID catastrophe

The COVID questionnaire filled out by players just before an NCAA regional game in at Scheels Arena in Fargo raised flags and abruptly ended a potential championship run.

A memo from Brian Brewster, an athletic trainer within the Wolverines hockey program since 2018, says the trouble started before the team left Ann Arbor for the trip to Fargo. Three days before the scheduled UMD game at Scheels Arena, the Wolverines had one player test positive for COVID. Per Brewster, because the Wolverines were testing all players each day, the county health department that governs the Michigan campus allowed them not to consider anyone on the team a “close contact” and the players marked their forms accordingly, at the direction of the team’s medical staff.

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The bracket for the 2021 NCAA Regional in Fargo.

The COVID-positive player was left home, his two roommates – also Wolverines players – tested negative, and flew to Fargo with the rest of the team. Everyone who arrived in North Dakota was tested upon arrival and all were negative. The two roommates were separated from the rest of the team, as a precaution. The next day, the NCAA required all players to fill out a questionnaire, which included a question about having close contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID. Per the University of Michigan policy of the time, because they were testing every day, no player was considered a close contact, and the players all checked the “no” box on that question.

As Brewster outlined in his memo, Pearson had no involvement in this discussion or the direction to players that they answer “no” on the COVID contact question,

“You go in a room and all the teams get tested. I don’t have anything to do with that. But there’s a weird question that I’m sure every team had, and I believe it asks if you’ve been in close contact with someone who had COVID in the last such and such time,” Pearson said. “That’s, I think, where some of the issue came in. But I never told anybody how to fill it out. At no time did I ever tell anyone ‘you have to lie on this test.’ We were told we should answer ‘no’ to that question.”

It was the absolute worst timing for the Wolverines to deal with COVID. While some Big Ten teams had lost a number of games due to the pandemic, Pearson said his team had stayed COVID-free all of the 2020-21 regular season, and had not run into any trouble until a week before the NCAAs, when they played in the Big Ten tournament at Notre Dame’s Compton Family Ice Arena.

But on the morning of the NCAA tournament opener, both of the roommates of the COVID-positive player were feeling sick, with fevers and the classic symptoms of COVID. One tested negative, the other tested positive. Both were sent back to Michigan by car – a trek of roughly 14 hours – and the NCAA declared the Wolverines out of the tournament.

“That was just devastating, because our team had done a great job of staying healthy and away from COVID. Unfortunately it caught up to us at the wrong time,” Pearson said, recounting a brutal team meeting in which he had to tell his players the season was over. “I just completed my 40th year and we’ve lost games in the national championship in overtime, and those meetings were tough. But to go into a room like that with a bunch of young men you love and have done everything right and have worked so hard, to get knocked out of the tournament, it was really, really difficult. It was extremely emotional, and I think a lot of it led to what transpired the next week.”

A goaltender departs

A former Fargo Force star was a mainstay in goal and a co-captain for the Wolverines, but behind closed doors there were troubles between the goalie and the coach.

Pearson struggled a little in recounting the issues with Strauss Mann, his starting goalie from the 2020-21 season. He noted that it is in a coach’s nature to protect his players.

“This is the first time I’ve told this story, because I wanted to protect Strauss,” Pearson said. “I know he had an opportunity and was looking to do something in the future. It didn’t come up in the investigation .. but I was doing everything I can to protect our team and Strauss.”

Mann declined to be interviewed by investigators for the WilmerHale report. Reached recently via text message while skating in his first NHL training camp, Mann politely declined comment for this story.

"... just want to move forward and put this all behind me," Mann replied to a text message from The Rink Live.

Originally from Connecticut, Mann had been a standout with the USHL’s Fargo Force prior to college and had just completed his junior season with the Wolverines at the time. He was a team captain and had been named second team All-Big Ten.

“Great goalie, outstanding student, captain. I had weekly talks with Strauss and we communicated very effectively about what was going on,” Pearson recalled. “We had no issues with our captains.”

Strauss Mann of the U.S. watches the action during a quarterfinal game against Slovakia
Strauss Mann of the U.S. watches the action during a quarterfinal game against Slovakia during the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Mann played three seasons with the Wolverines before leaving the program after his junior season in 2021 and signed with a Swedish professional team. In April, he signed a one-year contract with the San Jose Sharks.
Brian Snyder / Reuters

The coach did say that late in the 2020-21 season, Mann’s agent had admitted that it was likely the goalie would sign a pro contract and not be a Wolverine for his senior season. With European freshman goalie Erik Portillo emerging for the Wolverines and hungry for playing time, Pearson figured he would have notable depth in goal if both men stayed in Ann Arbor. In retrospect, Pearson believes that Mann’s close relationship with Shields sparked the trouble that was to follow.

“Upon returning from Fargo, I got a call from a player who was very despondent. He said Strauss Mann had come to their house and basically wanted the players to lie about me, to say that Coach Pearson told them to lie on COVID tests in Fargo,” Pearson said. “The player called me, despondent, and didn’t know what to do. He had called his father and his father had said, ‘Call Coach Pearson right away, because this isn’t right.’”

"Crickets…Because I knew what I knew, there’s no reference to any of that and (Strauss) can’t give me specifics. He’s the one doing most of the talking. ‘Well, give me some specifics, so we can understand, so going forward we’re better, we can handle that, we can talk to those guys.’ Nothing, and I’m watching the one captain. He won’t even look me in the eye, out of the three of them. The other captain said, a little thing, ‘Well, I think guys are just talking about, maybe, you know, communication. They don’t get the communication some of the other guys do,’ or whatever. Again, Strauss won’t elaborate on what he talked about, respect or being treated fairly and all that."
- Mel Pearson

Pearson said later that night his phone blew up with players, parents, agents and others close to the team calling to relate the same story. As soon as he could gather them, Pearson got Mann and the other team captains into a private meeting with an assistant coach present and asked what was going on. According to Pearson, nobody would talk at first.

“Finally Strauss spoke up and said, ‘There are just some things we’d like to change about respect and treating everybody fairly on the team. Some of the guys aren’t happy,’” Pearson recalled.

The coach pressed Mann for details – playing time, equipment, etc. Where is the perception of unfairness?

"Crickets … Because I knew what I knew, there’s no reference to any of that and (Strauss) can’t give me specifics," Pearson said. "He’s the one doing most of the talking. ‘Well, give me some specifics, so we can understand, so going forward we’re better, we can handle that, we can talk to those guys.’ Nothing, and I’m watching the one captain. He won’t even look me in the eye, out of the three of them. The other captain said, a little thing, ‘Well, I think guys are just talking about, maybe, you know, communication. They don’t get the communication some of the other guys do,’ or whatever. Again, Strauss won’t elaborate on what he talked about, respect or being treated fairly and all that … So the meeting ends and nothing really comes up."

When Mann and others left the room, Pearson asked one of the other captains to stay behind.

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These are the meeting notes, provided by Mel Pearson, during the coach's discussion with goaltender Strauss Mann.

“I asked … him privately what was going on. ‘This is total bulls–t. I just can’t even believe it. I’m sick to my stomach about all this,’” Pearson recounted the other captain saying. “He couldn’t tell me any more because he said he was sick to his stomach, he was so pissed off.”

A few days later, on April 2, 2021, Pearson and Mann met again, with team video coach Evan Hall present. Notes that Mann took that day and were provided to investigators alleged that in the meeting, Pearson threatened to reduce his playing time, revoke his scholarship and take away his captaincy if Mann were to return for his senior season. Pearson explained to The Rink Live that with Portillo returning, he expected the two goalies would compete for playing time, and as captains are determined by a vote of the players, the coach had no power to grant or remove a C. He added that scholarships at the University of Michigan are for four years, and Mann had a year of school remaining, so his scholarship was intact.

“I talked to him about his role on the team. I knew he had talked about signing and asked him about that. He said he wasn’t sure. I talked to him about his playing time because he wanted to know about the next year. I told him Erik Portillo was coming on and I couldn’t guarantee he was going to play as much,” Pearson said. “He asked about captaincy, and I said “I can’t tell you you’re going to be a captain, Strauss. The team votes on that … I know there are issues and guys are pissed off, and I don’t know how they’re going to vote.’”

“I never threatened to take his scholarship away. You can’t. He’s maybe the best player on our team. The other goalie (Portillo) has played five games. I want (Mann) back. I’m not going to push him out the door,” Pearson said. “That meeting ended. I could tell he was frustrated. Obviously he took that meeting a certain way. I didn’t take it that way, but I wanted to be honest and truthful.”

Less than a month later, Mann announced he was signing with a pro team in Sweden and leaving Michigan. In his stead, Portillo backstopped the Wolverines’ trip to the Frozen Four. Mann went on to play for Team USA at the 2022 Winter Olympics and has since signed a contract with the NHL’s San Jose Sharks. Pearson added that published allegations that the coach had encouraged teams not to sign Mann are “totally false” and said he reached out to Olympic coach David Quinn, now head coach of the Sharks, and encouraged them to put Mann on the Team USA roster.

Like many of the allegations leveled against his program, Pearson sees the same set of fingerprints on the troubles with Mann and the goalie’s eventual departure from Michigan.

“I truly believe, based on some events, that Steve Shields was manipulating Strauss,” Pearson said. “Since this all happened, I’ve had a few people say that absolutely (Shields) manipulated Strauss.”

Shields did not respond to multiple text messages and a voicemail requesting an interview for this story.

Claims of misogyny at Michigan

One former Michigan employee was accused of abusive behavior toward the women inside and outside the hockey program, and Pearson was accused of turning a blind eye to the trouble.

In the wake of the “Me Too” allegations of sexual harassment and unfair treatment of women that have impacted nearly every aspect of American life in recent years, colleges and universities are taking such claims very seriously.

When Shields and others alleged a pattern of unfair treatment of women in and around the Michigan hockey program, the investigation was inevitable. Among the charges against Pearson and former director of hockey operations Rick Bancroft are general mistreatment of women, including Kristy McNeil, the Wolverines’ media relations contact, and at least one incident where Pearson is alleged to have yelled at McNeil regarding the scheduling of a media interview with two Wolverines players.

In the WilmerHale report, former hockey secretary Lora Durkee said she retired in May 2021 in part because of what she perceived as a “toxic” culture in the hockey program, and in part because of repeated problems with Bancroft, about whom she had complained to the school’s human resources department on at least one occasion.

Still, Pearson provided The Rink Live with a printout of a September 2020 email from Durkee to him showing that when the athletic department proposed moving Durkee to another sport, she asked Pearson to do all he could to keep her with the hockey program.

Pearson, for his part, admits he was a demanding boss. Like virtually every coach on every level of every sport, he was prone to raise his voice to send a clear message at times. But he vehemently denies that the demands were abusive or gender based.

“She writes about the one issue we had, that I yelled at her. I never yelled at her. Did I talk firmly and straight to her? Yes, just like I would with a male employee or a female employee. It wouldn’t matter,” Pearson said of the incident with McNeil. “It was just that she crossed the boundary because we had that team with those high draft picks that year, and I had to lay boundaries on interviews on when they could take place and with whom and whatever. I told her to run things by me.”

It is worth noting that the WilmerHale report stated that their investigation of the incident between McNeil and Pearson did not find the coach's account to be truthful.

From the report:

"Given this statement, and the evidence that (Pearson's) conversation with Ms. McNeil struck her and (Shields) as inappropriate, we do not find (Pearson's) characterization of the incident or his assertion that (Shields) did not discuss it with him to be credible."

As for the issues raised with Bancroft, Pearson admits there was a problem. He showed The Rink Live the heading of a memo from a meeting he and others had with Bancroft in recent years titled, “Final Warning.” Bancroft had a reputation known throughout college hockey for being arrogant and even rude. While Pearson praised some of Bancroft’s work with the Wolverines, he admits now there were problems, including an incident at a Minneapolis hotel in which Bancroft was reprimanded for being verbally abusive to a female employee at the front desk.

“With Rick, I witnessed only one thing. It was here in Minneapolis when we checked into a hotel … and I don’t think it was because she was female, it was just the situation we were in. I did see him treat her poorly and let him know about that and actually went back and spoke to the young lady … I apologized because that’s not how you treat people and representing Michigan. So I was very concerned about how we always treated people.”
- Mel Pearson

“He had some issues. He actually did a good job and in some areas was a great worker. Really good,” Pearson said of Bancroft, who officially retired from the University of Michigan in June 2022. “He’d been a trainer there for a long time, but he did have some issues and those were addressed. Everyone says I failed to respond or look at those or should have known. They were addressed.”

Pearson noted the memo of reprimand, and that the coach himself tried to make things right after Bancroft’s behavior crossed the line.

“With Rick, I witnessed only one thing. It was here in Minneapolis when we checked into a hotel … and I don’t think it was because she was female, it was just the situation we were in,” Pearson said. “I did see him treat her poorly and let him know about that and actually went back and spoke to the young lady … I apologized because that’s not how you treat people and not representing Michigan. So I was very concerned about how we always treated people.”

Great Lakes, great mess

Pearson said it wasn't his call to pull the Wolverines out of a tradition-rich holiday tournament last season. With some players chosen to play in the World Juniors and lingering COVID concerns, the decision not to play nationally-ranked Western Michigan appeared to some as a way Michigan could hold onto its top Pairwise position.

The Great Lakes Invitational has been one of the great traditions in college hockey for seven decades now. Started in 1965, the four-team holiday tournament usually involves host Michigan Tech, Michigan State, Michigan and a fourth team. Played in Detroit for most of its history, the tournament has been won by Michigan a record 17 times. As a player and as a coach at Michigan Tech, Pearson won GLI titles. But last season, he admits he wanted no part of it.

Due to schedule conflicts and money concerns, the tournament was not going to be played at a neutral rink in Detroit, but rather as four games in separate venues, with Michigan State hosting two and Michigan hosting two. As far back as the summer of 2021, emails show that Pearson wanted to cancel the tournament, concerned that with ongoing COVID issues and Wolverines players away at the World Junior Championships over the holidays, they may struggle to field a full roster.

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Michigan coach Mel Pearson's team made the NCAA Frozen Four in 2018. Courtesy of University of Michigan Photography

He got his wish, sort of. Michigan hosted Michigan Tech on Dec. 29, skating to a 0-0 tie with the Huskies, but canceled the game with nationally-ranked Western Michigan the next night. The decision left the perception among many that Pearson was “ducking” the Broncos.

“I caught a lot of heat, but I didn’t make the final decision,” Pearson said. “I did, the summer before, bring it up to our sports administrator that we should cancel. Just because we weren’t going to play in (Detroit), it wasn’t going to be a tournament format. I was more interested in getting a couple games with Michigan Tech or somebody else, but not the GLI and not that date because I knew we were going to have a lot of players gone, I knew COVID was still around and I was very concerned that we’d get to that point and not have enough players.”

No matter whose decision it was, the damage to the Wolverines’ reputation was done. For much of the rest of the 2021-22 season, they were commonly ranked first in the Pairwise – the objective computer ranking used to determine the NCAA tournament field – but several national poll voters refused to rank the Wolverines atop the more subjective rankings due to their refusal to play Western Michigan. It’s worth noting that the 2022-23 Wolverines, with Naurato at the helm, will play a home-and-home series versus Western Michigan on Oct. 28-29.

“I took all the s–t for that and that’s OK. I was so looking forward to going in to Western Michigan this year and playing that game. I was all fired up. I still might sneak in,” Pearson said, with a grin.

After 40 years, a quiet end

Pearson said he had good talks with the university over the summer to extend his contract. However, following the public release of the law firm investigation, that all changed quickly.

It is rare in college sports for a successful coach to go into the final year of their contract without an extension. When recruiting the next wave of players, you want to be able to give assurances that the coaching staff will be intact when a player gets to campus.

With the investigation ongoing, Pearson was not offered a contract extension last winter. His employment contract with the University of Michigan officially expired on May 1, although after that date, the school insisted he was the Wolverines’ coach going forward, contract or not.

In retrospect, Pearson chuckles at a published report from February of last season claiming that Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel demanded he resign before the season ended. The Wolverines’ overtime loss to Denver in the Frozen Four semifinals in Boston would prove to be Pearson’s final game after 28 seasons in some capacity at Michigan. Before he entered the packed media room inside TD Garden after that game, Pearson paused at the door, then took a brief detour to give Manuel a long, heartfelt hug. If one man was pondering firing the other, it did not appear so, outwardly.

Pearson said that there was an agreement that a contract would wait for the WilmerHale investigation to be concluded and the report released to the university. That happened on May 5. The report found issues to be dealt with, but concluded that Pearson had not treated Shields unfairly or retaliated against the former goalie, nor had Pearson violated the school’s policy on sexual and gender-based misconduct.

“That’s what they were, I guess, hired to do. And Warde was great. He felt good about that,” Pearson said. “There were some other issues but we continued to talk over the summer and we were heading to a spot where we talked (contract) terms, we talked length. You’d have to ask him, but obviously I felt good about the conversations and where things were headed.”

Then, in early August, the report became public. A few days later, the school announced that Pearson had been removed from the position of head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.

"Seventeen of our 23 guys were on the All-Academic Big Ten that were eligible this year. All our seniors graduated. Not one of our high-profile kids left last summer. None of them. But it’s bad, it’s toxic. Players think they’re going to be retaliated against, or hated, or can’t talk to the coach. It’s just the metrics don’t add up. They just don’t add up. If it’s that bad, that’s why, one of the first things you see is guys bolting.”
- Mel Pearson

Looking back on all that he did and all that was investigated and revealed, Pearson admits that he was not perfect, and there were areas where he could have done a better job with the people around him. But, for example, if the hockey program was as toxic as some claim, the fired coach wonders why all those NHL draft picks chose to go there rather than signing pro contracts. In this transfer portal era, Pearson had just one underclassman depart his program early. Josh Groll, a forward from San Diego, played two games for the Wolverines in 2020-21 then transferred to Minnesota State, skating in 40 games for the Mavericks last season.

“Seventeen of our 23 guys were on the All-Academic Big Ten that were eligible this year. All our seniors graduated. Not one of our high-profile kids left last summer. None of them. But it’s bad, it’s toxic,” Pearson said, with a clearly sarcastic tone. “Players think they’re going to be retaliated against, or hated, or can’t talk to the coach. It’s just the metrics don’t add up. They just don’t add up. If it’s that bad, that’s why, one of the first things you see is guys bolting.”

A most unusual autumn

A new reason to go to the hockey rink, and a reflection on his time at Michigan.

Like most college hockey coaches do each September, Pearson came to Blaine, Minnesota, recently to scout the NAHL Showcase. But for the first time in 40 years, he will not be on a college coaching staff when the first pucks hit the ice on Oct. 1. He is working with an amateur hockey program in Detroit this winter, and admitted that the change is taking some adjustment.

“I’m doing good. I’ve had a number of opportunities come up and I just want to take a year off and see what happens. Just kind of put it behind me and move forward,” he said, admitting that he’s enjoying working with younger players again. “It’s been refreshing dealing with young kids. A guy called me and they had an opening and they pressed hard to get me involved with them. I was going crazy at home, so I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’”

Much has changed since he became a coach in the early 1980s. Pearson talked about the dangers of social media culture, which has given “some bad people out there” the opportunity to write whatever they want and publish it far and wide with no regard for the truth. When he has been encouraged by friends to file lawsuits in order to defend his reputation and his career, Pearson noted that he is a small-town guy, having called places like Ann Arbor, Houghton, Edina and Flin Flon, Manitoba, home in his life and hiring lawyers is not in his nature.

“I think once the college games start it’s going to be really weird. We’ll see. I called all the incoming freshmen, and I told them … I told them how great a place Michigan is … and to make sure they take full advantage of everything Michigan has. It’s a great school, a great hockey program, great tradition. The coaches just have a new driver. I’m not driving the car now. They’ve got a new driver but the car’s in great shape, it's ready to hit the road.”
- Mel Pearson

At one of Michigan’s first home football games this season, the 2021-22 Wolverines were honored on the field at halftime for their Big Ten tournament title. Pearson was not invited to be there. He said he understands why. But when the topic of the incoming freshman class came up – players that Pearson and his former staff recruited, which has been ranked the nation’s top recruiting class by at least one national publication – the former coach’s eyes got notably red, and he spoke slowly, fighting to control his emotions.

“I think once the college games start it’s going to be really weird. We’ll see,” he said, taking several long pauses. “I called all the incoming freshmen, and I told them … I told them how great a place Michigan is … and to make sure they take full advantage of everything Michigan has. It’s a great school, a great hockey program, great tradition. The coaches just have a new driver. I’m not driving the car now. They’ve got a new driver but the car’s in great shape, it's ready to hit the road.”

Somewhere, Pearson has two national championship rings from his time as a Wolverines assistant coach. As the head coach at Michigan Tech, he took a Huskies program that had struggled on the ice for three decades and got the Huskies to the top of their conference and back into the NCAA tournament. In his five seasons as the Wolverines head coach, they played in two of the four Frozen Fours contested (the 2020 tournament was canceled due to the pandemic). The cumulative NHL salaries earned by players Pearson recruited and coached reaches into the hundreds of millions. So even with the brutal and abrupt ending to his coaching career, Pearson can’t help but feel blessed.

“It’s been a great run. I’m a very, very fortunate and lucky person. I don’t have too much to complain about. I’ve got three great kids and three great grandkids. I’ve got good friends and have been able to do something I love for 40 years,” he said, offering some self-deprecating humor. “I started (coaching) when I was 23. I was such a bad hockey player that it got me into coaching early.”

With that, Pearson slung a dark blue Michigan backpack, with the bright maize M displayed for all to see, over his shoulder. Like he has done for four decades, he headed off to the hockey rink.

“Looking forward to the next adventure,” Pearson said, and smiled.

This story has been updated to correct that the Michigan Daily was among the outlets that published the report, but not the first.

Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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