Exclusive Q&A: Michigan Hockey Coach Mel Pearson
Two full years into his tenure as Michigan Hockey head coach, Mel Pearson took the time on a beautiful June morning to discuss wide-ranging current college hockey topics with The Wolverine.
A transcript of that conversation is below.
The Wolverine: It’s the college hockey offseason. What occupies a coaching staff this time of year?
Pearson: It’s a busy time of year. We’re doing a lot of recruiting, believe it or not. You’d think in June that things would quiet down, but there are a lot of tryout camps going on, so we like to be in the rinks and watch the various players that we have committed or are interested in.
Also, we’re getting ready for next fall. A lot of planning goes into what we do. Putting our schedule together for the fall.
We just found out [rising-junior forward] Josh Norris is not coming back about a week ago, so it has a domino effect as far as where we’re at.
Making sure all the freshmen get in for orientation. So there are a lot of things going on as well as watching hockey. Watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As a coach, you’re always trying to pick up a few things. Watching the winning teams and saying, ‘Maybe we can implement that system or maybe that would be good for us.’ You’re always trying to steal ideas and go with the latest and greatest ideas out there.
It’s nice seeing [St. Louis Blues assistant coach and Michigan Hockey alumnus] Mike Van Ryn behind the bench. It’s not always the guys on the ice. It’s also the guys behind the bench, the scouts on the road or the people in the front office. We stay in touch with Mike and we’re excited for him.
You also have former Wolverine Steven Kampfer playing for Boston, who has been in and out of the lineup. It’s awesome for him at his age [30 years old], bounced around a little, to have another chance to win a Cup. He’s won one with Boston. He went away and now he’s back with another chance.
I enjoy watching the games, but when you have a Michigan connection, it makes it that much more fun to watch.
The Wolverine: With the rumors that Illinois is even more seriously considering adding men’s ice hockey as a varsity sport, what are your thoughts on expansion, adding new teams to the Big Ten Hockey Conference?
Pearson: I think it would be awesome. Hockey’s such a great sport. I think it [hockey] could a be a sleeping giant at a lot of institutions.
Of course, there are hurdles to starting up a program, but once you get it up and running, it’s a great addition. You can look at Penn State as an example. Arizona State is another one. Even Notre Dame, building the new rink. [Notre Dame] had hockey, but they made a re-commitment to hockey there. It’s exciting. I think eight teams in the Big Ten would be a nice number.
But we’ll see. I know there’s been a lot of talk and rumors. I don’t know anything more than anybody else does. It’s been really quiet. Obviously, the biggest component is the financial part of it. If you can find boosters or donors to make significant contributions, then you’re off and running. It’s a no brainer. I think it’s been proven that hockey can make money. It’s not going to be a drain on the athletic department. I hope they can get it going and have some other schools look into it, too.
The Wolverine: With the loss of two seniors in Joe Cecconi and Nicholas Boka on the blue line and the early departure of Quinn Hughes, who do you envision stepping up to fill those open spots in the lineup?
Pearson: I can talk about [incoming freshman and top prospect for June's NHL Draft] Cam York now. Cam comes to mind right away. He reminds me of Quinn in some ways. We expect him to come in and get some power play time with Joseph [Cecconi] and Quinn leaving. Cam will be able to come in and do some things on the power play and just be a good all-around puck distributor, good skater.
As far as the returning defensemen, I think [rising-sophomore Jack] Summers and [classmate Nick] Blankenburg are ready to take a huge step. Both had good freshman campaigns. Both had a little bit of time on the power play. Both killed penalties. I thought they played huge roles for us. To me, I see the biggest jump and improvement between the freshman and sophomore years. They know what to expect now. They get a good summer in here, working with Joe Maher, the strength and conditioning coach.
Those two guys are going to be key as well as our two seniors, Griffin Luce and Luke Martin. We expect them to come in and just be solid. Martin had surgery and we really missed him in the second half of last year. He’s feeling good. Everything’s positive and the recovery is going well, so he should be ready to go when we get back in the fall.
The Wolverine: There have been changes in the NCAA recruiting regulations. How are they affecting you? (Editor’s note: Restrictions are now in effect to delay contact with recruits to push back offers and verbal commitments to much later in the recruiting cycle.)
Pearson: There’s some good and bad about it. I’m like 99 percent of the coaches who feel like we’re offering players way too early. Putting a lot of pressure on young men and their families to make decisions too early, having to make life-altering decision as a 14- or 15-year-old, I don’t think that’s fair for them.
But, we [the college coaching staffs] all get involved in it. Once one domino falls, we all have to start doing it. I think the new regulations will help in the long run. There are going to be some growing pains in the first few years, because there are kids we have committed like other programs, that legally we’re not supposed to be able to talk to them. So that’s difficult where a kid has committed to you [before the regulations went into effect] and you can’t call them? To me, that’s one of the things that should have been grandfathered in. But how are you going to prove the commitment? Is it just hearsay?
But I get it. Another part of the new rules I don’t like is that you can bring a kid to campus for a visit on Jan. 1, but you can’t offer him till August. I don’t get that. Once you bring a young man and his family to campus, you should be able to offer him.
In the long run, the new regulations will be good. I think there will have to be some tweaks to how they are currently written.
The Wolverine: You have a couple of graduate transfers coming in for the first time. Can you talk about that process?
Pearson: [Chuckling] I can say we have a couple. It’s new to us in college hockey. It’s new to me. It’s the first time we’ve ever done this. I can see some definite benefits, especially a team like us who lost players like Quinn Hughes and Josh Norris to early pro signings.
The grad transfers can step right in and have an impact. You’re hopefully going to get a player who can step right in after playing three years, a player who is ready from day one and can hit the ground running.
Editor’s note: Defenseman Shane Switzer from Boston University and forward Jacob Hayhurst from RPI have both announced individually their intentions to graduate transfer to Michigan for the 2019-20 season. Hayhurst missed seven games due to injury this past season but finished as RPI's top point-getter (23 on three goals and 20 assists) for a second straight year (23 on 12 goals and 11 assists in 2017-18).