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Myers: For those who know Mel Pearson, the Michigan hockey report makes one wonder why and how we got here

A decade ago, I got to know Mel Pearson when he was a college hockey head coach for the first time, and met one of the sport's good guys. As a damning report on his time at Michigan is revealed, it is fair to be disappointed, bewildered and disgusted.

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

A glance at the archived photos that Timehop presents each morning showed my wife and sons standing in front of Dee Stadium, the original home rink of Michigan Tech hockey and one of the truly iconic old barns in the nation. The photo was dated Aug. 3, 2012. One of my sons was a pre-teen then. Today, both are college graduates and one of them has an amazing wife.

My immediate thought was this: exactly a decade earlier I had visited with Mel Pearson in his office inside Tech’s more modern on-campus rink.

We talked about Daniel Sova, one of his Huskies players that day for a InsideCollegeHockey.com profile I was writing.

We talked about his decision to take the head coaching gig at his alma mater after more than two decades and two NCAA titles as an assistant at Michigan. “Well, Red (Berenson) is just never going to retire,” he joked.

We talked about his days in the Twin Cities suburbs, starring for Edina before making his way to college hockey in the Upper Peninsula.

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And, just 16 months removed from his final game as the Wolverines assistant coach, he was frank about how the NCAA’s decision to have teams switch ends for overtime may have played a role in keeping him from a third national title ring. The Wolverines fell to UMD in overtime in the 2011 finale after Michigan got caught on the ice, unable to make a full line change, for an extended shift.

In my conversation with Pearson then – and in my dealings with him as recently as April, when Denver upset the Wolverines in Boston, on the way to the Pioneers winning another NCAA crown – he was never anything less than polite, friendly, helpful and honest.

Perhaps that makes the hour spent reading the painstakingly-compiled report on the recent inner-workings of Pearson’s Michigan program all the more bewildering and difficult to comprehend. The actions presented there, and the person we have come to know outwardly, are at sharp odds.

This is not intended to present an impression of any doubt or disbelief of the report’s findings. They are thorough, detailed, and at times stomach-churning. For me, it is more a question of why. Why would Mel Pearson, a person I’ve considered a friend and one of the good ones in college hockey, tolerate and participate in such a mess on his watch?

High profile, high expectations

Thanks to college football, college basketball and popular culture, Michigan is one of perhaps a half-dozen programs in college hockey – Ohio State, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Boston College and Harvard being the others – where every potential recruit in North America already knows their name.

Pearson led Tech back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since Ronald Reagan had spent fewer than 100 days in the White House. Then in 2017 after Berenson finally actually retired, Pearson returned to Michigan, where he was blessed with one of those high-profile programs and the seemingly endless resources that go along with it.

Mel Pearson.jpg
University of Michigan men's hockey head coach Mel Pearson

In five seasons at the helm of the Wolverines, he has taken them to half of the Frozen Fours held in that time (the 2020 playoffs were canceled due to the pandemic), and may have gone three-for-four had COVID not struck the Wolverines in 2021. He recruited and coached seven NHL first-round draft picks last season, and hung a banner for winning the Big Ten playoff title by beating the Minnesota Gophers before a packed house in Minneapolis last March.

That night, Pearson – drenched in a sports drink, with a big trophy next to him – wore a relieved smile, and talked about character and resiliency when I asked about his team’s ability to put aside all of the off-ice distractions and just focus on winning hockey games.

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“I’m just proud for the guys,” he said. “They’re the ones who have to put aside the noise. And there’s so much noise.”

He wasn’t talking about the notoriously well-researched R-rated show put on by the student section at Yost Ice Arena. He was referring more to NHL Draft hype, players leaving for World Juniors and other distractions. But there were also rumblings that all was not well at Michigan, and they were growing louder as word of an ongoing investigation of Pearson’s program became known.

Rumblings in the room

“The players all hate Mel,” I was told off-handedly one night in the Yost pressbox by a person in the know, as the Gophers ran roughshod over a talented but seemingly uninterested Michigan squad a few years ago. It was hard to fathom, and yet…

Coaches and players abruptly left the program. Steve Shields, an on-ice star goalie for the Wolverines who had coached with Pearson both in Houghton and Ann Arbor was sacked with little explanation. More recent star goalie Strauss Mann inexplicably headed to Europe just two semesters shy of his college degree. And Mann was one of the reasons Jack LaFontaine had summarily been shown the Yost exit a few years earlier, before transferring to Minnesota, backstopping the Gophers’ Big Ten playoff title in 2021 and winning college hockey’s top goalie honor.

Strauss Mann of Team USA blocks the puck
Strauss Mann of Team USA blocks the puck during the 2022 Beijing Olympics quarterfinals Feb. 16, 2022, against Slovakia.
Annegret Hilse / Reuters

There was talk of falsified COVID reports in Fargo, before the Wolverines eventually were unable to play in the 2021 NCAA regional. There was the well-publicized decision to play Michigan Tech, but not a powerful Western Michigan team in last season’s Great Lakes Invitational. Pearson cited player safety concerns. As a former INCH colleague noted, it was like calling in sick for the day after tomorrow.

The Rink Live offered Pearson an opportunity to appear on a podcast to explain the decision, and defend his program against claims of "ducking" the Broncos. He initially agreed, then changed course and declined the invite via email a few days later, saying he felt it was time to move on.

Trophy tempest

Two months prior to Michigan winning that conference playoff title in Minneapolis, behind the scenes at 3M Arena at Mariucci some of that ugliness and toxicity from the law firm’s report was witnessed by those of us grabbing postgame quotes after a 4-1 Michigan win.

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The teams annually play for a lightly-regarded and barely-known traveling trophy named for former Gophers coach John Mariucci and former Wolverines coach Al Renfrew. It goes to the team who wins the season series. The Gophers had won three of four games with the Wolverines in 2020-21 and held the trophy. Because each team won twice in 2021-22, the Gophers intended to keep it. Rick Bancroft, the Michigan team staffer featured so prominently in a negative light in the recent investigative report, insisted otherwise.

Michigan’s staff noted that the Wolverines had won two games in regulation. The Gophers had won once in regulation and once in overtime. Thus, they claimed Michigan had won the season series from a Big Ten points standpoint, and the trophy should be coming back to Ann Arbor.

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At one point, Bancroft – widely known for his brash arrogance and for his sizable frame – is said to have stormed into the Gophers team lounge and loudly demanded that the hardware be handed over. Opposing team members and staff entering another team's facility uninvited is, at best, a serious breach of sports etiquette.

Then Michigan athletics director Warde Manuel reportedly placed a call to Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle that night demanding the trophy as well. The Gophers acquiesced. The trophy was loaded onto the Wolverines team plane and made a few boastful social media appearances. It all seemed like a lot of squeeze for very little juice.

2022 Frozen Four Semifinal - Michigan vs. Denver
The Michigan Wolverines huddled around goalie Erik Portillo prior to the opening faceoff of their NCAA Frozen Four Semifinal game at TD Garden in Boston on Thursday, April 7, 2022.
Jim Rosvold / The Rink Live

Enigma ahead

Bancroft was quietly allowed to retire in June, more than a month after Michigan’s athletic department received the law firm’s complete investigative report that detailed his pattern of harassing and unprofessional behavior toward females working with Wolverines hockey. The 68-page document is dated May 5, 2022. That is exactly four days after Pearson’s most recent employment contract with the University of Michigan expired. Ask anyone in a position of power in maize and blue and they will insist that Pearson, contract or no, remains the Wolverines head coach less than two months before they open the 2022-23 season.

In light of all that has happened and all that has been revealed, it is fair to wonder how that is still the case. And looking back 10 years, to that friendly conversation with a good man destined to do great things as a college hockey head coach, and so many similar conversations since then, it is fair to wonder, with amazement and disappointment, how we came to this.

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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