Happy Returns For Merrill, Michigan
by Zach Helfand/CHN Reporter
ANN ARBOR, Mich. On his end of the phone on Friday, Dan Merrill was near tears as his son on the other line, Michigan freshman defenseman Jon Merrill, brought the news they had waited for since the start of the hockey season.
For the first time in eight months and 28 days, and after a suspension that lasted more than half of the regular season, Jonny would play for the Michigan hockey team in a game against Lake Superior State.
As the crowd at Yost Ice Arena chanted his name, Merrill made an immediate impact. He collected two assists and a plus-three rating in the series opener on Friday, and he bolstered a Michigan defense that had been battered at times earlier in the season.
“He was probably our best defenseman last year, and to get him back is great,” said senior forward and captain Luke Glendening. “But it’s also just the guy he is to have around in the locker room. He keeps guys loose. His confidence — he just has an aura about him that breeds confidence. And that’s the guy you want in the locker room.”
Merrill’s transition to game speed was aided by his time on Team USA in the World Junior Championships — he actually returned just 24 hours before the start of Friday’s game.
The transition wasn’t surprising. After all, he has also been allowed to practice with the team since Nov. 1.
What was surprising to many, was that Merrill even stuck around long enough to serve out his suspension. Many assumed that he would bolt for the OHL (the Plymouth Whalers hold his rights) and then leave to the New Jersey Devils.
But if Merrill harbors any bitterness over the suspension, he certainly didn’t show it.
“I made a commitment to Coach (Red) Berenson and the University of Michigan, and I thought (staying) was the right thing to do,” Merrill said. “Not only the right thing for me as a person, but for the team to stick it out and face the punishment. And I’m glad I did, and I think I’m a better guy for it.
“The support that the Athletic Department, Coach Berenson, and (Athletic Director) Dave Brandon have shown me through this entire experience has been unbelievable. I think without guys like that, I wouldn’t be the guy I am right now.”
Berenson said he is proud of the way his sophomore defenseman has handled the consequences for his suspension, which was sparked by a violation of unspecified team rules.
“He’s been terrific,” Berenson said. “When you make a mistake and you have to pay for it, you can either complain about it, you can walk away, you can quit or whatever … He had a big choice to make, and it was amazing how easy it was for him.”
Merrill said that he would address his future plans — specifically whether or not he would join the Devils next year — when it came time to make the decision. Right now, Merrill has been busy enough.
Up until Friday, both Merrill and Berenson assumed that he would not play in 2012’s opening series against Lake Superior State. Merrill was in Canada with Team USA until Thursday night and didn’t even have a cell phone.
According to Merrill, he didn’t receive word that he would play until about 1:30 p.m on Friday.
It didn’t take long from there until the tweets from teammates began to pour in, all expressing delight to see on of the nation’s top defenseman return to a floundering Michigan team.
“You don’t realize how much the guys care about you and things like that until something like that happens,” Merrill said. “Everyone was supportive and everyone had my back.”
And why not? Last year’s second team All-CCHA defenseman provides much needed stability in the defensive zone. He can control the pace of the game and can get the puck up the ice to forwards.
And he becomes a much-needed presence on both special teams units that have been abysmal.
“He gives us a spark,” said junior forward Chris Brown. “He’s kind of that missing puzzle piece that we haven’t had.”
Michigan still must address some lingering issues before punching their 22nd consecutive ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Aside from an inconsistent defense and the worst power-play unit Berenson can remember, Michigan lacks a true finisher and offensive threat.
Injuries also plagued the Wolverines over the weekend when fifth-year senior goalie Shawn Hunwick and freshman forward Alex Guptill both sustained apparent head injuries. Neither practiced on Monday, but Berenson said Hunwick will play this weekend against Ohio State.
As for Merrill, he’s just happy to be back on the ice in a Michigan sweater.
“When you lose hockey like that for such a long period of time, it really makes you think about the decisions you make off the ice that influence your hockey career,” Merrill said. “I was just willing to do anything and everything to get back on the ice.”