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Michigan blocks out the off-ice noise in quest for program's record 10th NCAA crown

There have been plenty of non-hockey headlines surrounding the Michigan Wolverines all season. While the future is uncertain, coach Mel Pearson and his team have managed to ignore most of the distractions in winning a Big Ten playoff title and returning to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2018.

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The Michigan Wolverines hoisted the Big Ten tournament's championship trophy after beating host Minnesota for the title on March 19, 2022 at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis.
John Autey / The Rink Live

BOSTON – Drenched from head to toe after his team had poured a bucket full of sports drinks on him in celebration of winning the Big Ten tournament last month, Michigan coach Mel Pearson sat at a table inside a locker room on ice level of 3M Arena at Mariucci and seemed relieved to be talking just about what happened on the ice.

The Wolverines reached the 2022 Frozen Four – their second under Pearson – this season due to some stellar play between the thin red goal lines, and because they have somehow been able to block out much of the noise and the headlines that don’t involve shots, saves and goals.

It started in late July, when the names of Wolverines players were called with four of the first five picks in the NHL Draft, including defenseman Owen Power, who went first overall to the Buffalo Sabres. It continued with an international contingent of Wolverines headed first to the (brief) World Junior Championships and then to the Olympics. There was a firestorm of negative news related to accusations of misogyny inside the Michigan program, and the notion that players were asked to provide false information about their COVID test results prior to the 2021 NCAA tournament, in which the Wolverines flew to Fargo, then flew home without being allowed to play a game.

Follow the 2022 NCAA men's hockey tournament coverage on The Rink Live for previews, recaps, photos, information and more as the teams play for a national championship in Boston.

Even today, in the run-up to a Frozen Four where the Wolverines are the favorite to win their program’s first NCAA hockey title since 1998 – also in Boston – there have been predictions that Pearson could win a national championship AND be fired if some of the off-ice accusations are proven true once the school completes an investigation.

So Pearson, in his sixth season as the head coach at Michigan, could be forgiven for seeming relieved to be able to just talk about hockey that night in Minneapolis.


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“I’m just proud for the guys. They’re the ones who have to put aside the noise, and there’s so much noise that happened right from the draft through the season, through World Juniors, through the Olympics to some things that happened away from the rink,” Pearson said. “There were a lot of things thrown at these guys and they’ve just been able to block it out for the most part and just play.”

Blocking pucks out for the Wolverines all season has been XL-size goalie Erik Portillo, who is officially listed as 6-6, 225, and has started all 41 of their games this season, posting a .926 saves percentage and a 2.13 goals against average. Portillo credits his team for the good numbers.

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Michigan goalie Erik Portillo (1) got help from his teammates in keeping the Minnesota Gophers at bay on Saturday, March 19, 2022, as the Wolverines won the Big Ten tournament championship game at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis.
John Autey / The Rink Live

“I think we sacrifice and when we really need to, they play so hard in front of the net and in front of me,” said Portillo, a sophomore from Gothenburg, Sweden. “I really appreciate the guys putting their body in front of the puck and really sacrificing for the team.”

The Wolverines lead NCAA hockey with 26 Frozen Four appearances and nine previous titles, but have won just two (1996 and 1998) since they beat Denver 6-3 for the 1964 national championship.

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The University of Michigan hockey team talks at center ice during practice on March 24, 2022, at PPL Center in Allentown, Pa.
Mick Hatten / The Rink Live

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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