Q&A With ... Michigan Tech Coach Mel Pearson
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Mel Pearson originally turned down the Michigan Tech job, but when it was offered to him again soon thereafter, he took the job. A 1981 alumnus of Michigan Tech, Pearson scored the game-winning goal, in triple overtime, in the last Great Lakes Invitational the Huskies won. He went on to become an assistant for Tech, until moving to Michigan, where he remained for over 20 years as Red Berenson's right-hand man.
He is trying to turn around a program that has struggled for almost 20 years.
CHN: How are things so far?
Pearson: So far so good. I like where we're at. We need a lot of work obviously. But the administration has been good, I like my staff, I like the kids on the team. Hopefully we can keep moving in the right direction.
CHN: Part of your staff is Bill Muckalt, who you recruited at Michigan and had a good NHL career. Talk about bringing him on.
Pearson: The thing that really attracted me was his personality. Obviously recruiting is our lifeblood. We need a guy who can go out and interact not only with coaches, but the kids and their families. Billy spent last year running a team in New Mexico, so he got experience. But it's a combination of his personality and work ethic. He was a high-end player and the first guy I wanted on my staff. I also knew Michigan was talking to him, and he made it into their final three. I would've been happy for Billy if he got a chance, but they decided to go in another direction. (Michigan hired another alum, Brian Wiseman, to take Pearson's place.)
CHN: How did you know it was time to leave Michigan?
Pearson: That was a lot of it. I'd been at Michigan for so long, you get sort of settled in your ways, so to speak. You get a chance to win a championship every year, and at Tech it was like starting over. But I think it was just my age, timing, where I was — and Red is not going away. And I wanted to be a head coach. I wasn't sure quite how long he was going to be there. Given all that, I was ready to do my own thing. I knew what I'd gotten into, and I was looking forward to the challenge. It's a big challenge. But where I am, I'm confident in myself, and I believe we can change things around up here. And with the landscape the way it's changing, I won't say it's easier, but it might be less difficult.
CHN: There was a hesitation at first before you took the job. Was it just the concern of moving to a tougher situation?
Pearson: We'd just lost to Duluith (in the national championship game) and within 48 hours (Tech) wanted a decision, because they had waited a while (after firing Jamie Russell). They wanted an answer pretty quick, and I wasn't ready to make it. I hadn't thought about it that much. You get so locked into what you're doing and making your run, there wasn't time to think about other jobs. And it was "bang." So many people at Michigan reached out and said you're doing a great job, you make Michigan proud — you hear this stuff, and (the players are) like your own kids. The loss (to Duluth, in overtime) was so tough to take. When you lose like that, you're so close, it takes a while to get over that. I wasn't ready mentally to make that decision that quick. I told them that and they felt they needed to move on.
CHN: Ultimately, they couldn't really find anyone else they liked.
Pearson: Maybe it was like it was meant to be. When I look back, I'm just really thankful that (AD) Suzanne (Sanregret) took a little more time. And I got more time to talk to our AD, Dave Brandon, and Red more.
CHN: You said you knew what you were getting yourself into. A lot of people say that, then find out it's not what they thought. Has there been any surprises?
Pearson: No big surprises at all. I had the advantage of playing here and coaching here. The big thing is the remoteness of the school, the size — you're dealing with that. That's the joy and you have to understand that, how you have to use that when you recruit. There were no big surprises. Maybe moreso on the other side — I've been more impressed with our crowds. We had 3,000 the other night and the place is packed, the students are into it. I've really been impressed with the overall suport, and it's a great hockey area. Now we need to give them something to be proud of.
CHN: Jamie Russell is a great guy and also an alum. Why do you believe you can do what he wasn't able to?
Pearson: I recruited Jamie to Michigan Tech, out of a small place called Caribou College. I knew him personally and he's a great guy and a good coach. I don't know what happened or what went on. But for me, I think it's my networking, my years of experience. I'm a little bit older. I've been around the block a little bit more. The style we're going to try to play is maybe more suited in this day and age. That's just my opinion. Whether it will work or won't work, time will tell. The other thing is, we need stability. You need to try to hold onto your assistant coaches for a while.
CHN: Bill Muckalt is from British Columbia. You said you wanted to recruit more out there. Other schools, like Cornell, Princeton, do that a lot. Is that just because, since there's no Division I school near there, that those kids are like free agents.
Pearson: Absolutely. In Minnesota, kids are within driving distance of so many schools. You go out (to B.C.) and everything is in play for the parents. They are almost like free agents. They have to fly everywhere anyway, so you take the geography out of it. ... But we have to get back (to Minnesota) too. I went to high school there, I have some good networks there. We might not get that 1-A kid, but we better get that 1-B kid that has a chance to be as good or better. We have to identify them. So we're back in Minnesota and getting on some kids.
CHN: What is the selling points for Michigan Tech?
Pearson: It's a beautiful area. It's picturesque. It's right on Lake Superior, the campus is beautiful, the rink is outstanding. It has suites, a great weight room, everything is first class. And the school, academically, is top notch. So you have to find that kid who wants to play in a community where hockey is No. 1. Here, they're not interested in talking about football. It's a very unique setting. And we're selling our coaches too. I've coached 60 guys who have played in the NHL. Steve Shields is our volunteer goalie coach.
CHN: You knew the Big Ten was coming, but did you have any sense when you took the job that all of this other craziness was going to happen?
Pearson: No I didn't. You knew that there would probably be some minor changes, maybe a team or two moving once the Big Ten did their thing. But if someone said there would be no CCHA, a league that just had two teams in the Frozen Four, I'd say they were crazy. Maybe somebody could've predicted it — there were some warning signs in the meetings last spring right about the time I was taking the job, but they were more rumors. Having said that, I think we're fine. I tell people all the time, we'll be in a good, competitive league, playing good teams. At the end of the day, there's not a huge difference. ... They (Michigan, etc...) are still going to recruit the same kid. That's not going to change.
CHN: What about the revenue aspect of it? If revenue goes down from not getting to play those teams in your building, it could affect your recruiting budget.
Pearson: The one tournament that really generates revenue is the Final Five. But I came from the CCHA and I can tell you it wasn't a lot of money there. The WCHA, maybe a little bit. But it we have a better chance to win, it's going to generate more excitement and sales here. It will be a wash. ... In recruiting, hardly any kids have brought it up. You have to go after a certain kid that you know you can get. We have three or four kids committed for down the road. They just want to know about our coaching staff, where we're headed. Maybe the kid will say (Minnesota, Wisconsin, etc... are) not in this league (so I don't want to come there). But overall I've been impressed by that end of it.
CHN: You have good perspective, having just come from Michigan, where this happens. But does the fact that players leave early, or never come at all after committing, help a school like Tech?
Pearson: It balances things out a bit. I'll use Michigan as an example. You get hit up on both ends. A Max Pacioretty or Jack Johnson, they one and done, or two and done. It's hard to forecast that. You try to in your recruiting. At the same time, if a kid doesn't come, you tie yourself up for that scholarship. I think it levels the playing field to some extent. The thing is, recruiting is so far out and schools are tying up so many kids. I told Brian Wiseman, you should be thanking me because you don't have to do anything for two years. But some of the Ivies, they can really stockpile kids because they don't have that cap of 18 scholarships. So other schools tie up these kids so early, we get pinched a little bit. ... There's enough decent players we can get into. The hard part is, when you first take a new job is, you're almost two years behind in the recruiting process. You go to one of those USHL showcases now, and 80 percent of the kids are committed. You start to say, "what are we doing here?" Should we even be there. We can go out to B.C. when nobody is out there.
CHN: Do you see anything being adjusted, or is that just the way it is now?
Pearson: The NCAA was talking about not committing kids too early, and there might be a little correction at some point. When I was a player, I didn't get committed until my senior year. But all of a sudden, one school got it going early, and then you have to. Part of it is the OHL and WHL, they draft these kids out of midget minor and so the kids say, "Are you gonna offer me anything? Because I can go to Kitchener." They're leveraging you. So, change? I don't see it any time soon.
CHN: You got to play for the legendary John MacInnes. What was he like?
Pearson: He was a great person. He was very open. The guys on the team, a few years before, had a nickname for him — "The Saint." I heard him swear maybe three times in four years, that might've been it. He was such a solid individual. He treated everyone so well and fair. And he was a really good coach. ... School was so important to him. He really believed it. He was just as proud of his 97 percent graduation rate.
CHN: What else can you say?
Pearson: On my recruiting trip, I went down to meet him in his office. At the time, they didn't have offices in the rink. His office was in the gym, and there was basketball and racquetball going on in there. His office was under a stairwell. You could barely fit two people in there. You talk about modest. I walk in, and there's this living legend — he'd won two NCAA championships and been in three Frozen Fours in a row. With all he'd accomplished, it left an impression on me that this is who he is. He is not above that. ... I grew up in a small mining town in Northern Manitoba. (Houghton) was originally a mining area. He was sort of like a father figure.
CHN: Things were so different in coaching then. There wasn't advanced scouting and breaking down video, at least not as much. What was he like as a coach?
Pearson: Things were less hectic going from practice to the weight room to video, all this stuff you have now. I don't want to say it's better or worse — you just seemed to have more interaction with the head coach. You try to do more of it now — but it's literally the ice to the weight room to study. The pace is more frantic. I'm not going to say we overcoach, it was just simpler. The practices you could say were roughly the same. There wasn't as much empahasis on defensive hockey.
When I first got my job here (as an assistant coach), John had a year to go before retirement. We shared an office. It was just one of the neatest experiences, talking hockey and different philosophies. It was a really neat year.