Return to Ann Arbor Fulfills Dream for Pearson
Leaving Michigan in 2011 was the hardest decision Mel Pearson had to make.
Pearson had just finished his 23rd season as an assistant coach with the Wolverines, serving under Red Berenson. During his time, Michigan made 21 NCAA tournaments, won eight CCHA tournaments and two national championships. Pearson’s relationship with the school stretched further, as his three children — and his son-in-law — graduated from the school.
“When I was a young assistant coach a few years ago, I came here to apply for a job,” Pearson said. “And little did I know at the time when I got that job how it would change the rest of my life. When I accepted that position as assistant coach, I had the opportunity to work at the greatest university in the world. I had the opportunity to be around the best student athletes in the world. And I had the opportunity to coach, in my opinion, with the best college coach there’s ever been, coach Red Berenson.”
Sure, when Pearson left he was going to his alma mater, Michigan Tech, trading his assistant coaching position for a head coach job. And he said all the right things, too, about returning home and returning Michigan Tech to prominence. And he meant it. He knew the Michigan job may never come, and he wanted to do great things in Houghton.
But deep down, Pearson knew he wanted to be the bench boss at Michigan one day. When you add it up, he has much more time invested in Ann Arbor than Houghton, not to mention his own family's connections. He just wasn’t sure a return would ever happen.
“I enjoyed it here. I love it here. It was a tough decision at the time, but it was the right decision,” Pearson said. “I appreciate the guidance I got from Coach Berenson and the AD Dave Brandon at the time. I think that was always in the back of my mind, to have the opportunity to come back to Michigan. In my wildest dreams I don’t know if I ever thought it would happen.”
On April 24, Michigan granted Pearson’s wish, officially naming him the ninth coach in program history. Pearson replaced Berenson, who retired after 33 seasons at the helm. Not only did Berenson mentor Pearson, but the pair faced each other several times after Pearson returned to the Huskies.
“The first time we played it was always difficult. You have mixed emotions. You want to show your old boss that you learned something from him and be respectable,” Pearson said. “Fortunately we were able to win a couple games along the way.
“I remember coming back to Yost it was odd it was really odd going to the visitor’s bench. You spend 23 years somewhere and then you got to go over to that bench, where the students are behind you and chanting ‘Ugly parents’ and all other stuff, so it was, I was afraid for my family to sit there. Ugly coach, that’s all I needed. I have a ton of respect for coach Berenson. Any success I have I owe to him.”
After the hire, Pearson received congratulatory messages from Michigan hockey alumni he coached.
“You can talk about the wins and the losses and all the other things, but it’s the people you touch and the relationships you form and that’s something special to me.”
Pearson inherited a Wolverine team that has made the NCAA tournament once in the past five years after a stretch of 22 consecutive appearances. Last season was particularly difficult for Michigan, as the Wolverines struggled to score and won just 13 games — the lowest total since the 1985-86 season, when Michigan won 12 contests. The team's last Frozen Four appearance was Pearson's last season as an assistant, 2011.
“I like this team. I like the makeup of this team. They’ve got size, speed, good up front, good on the back end, good goaltending. All the ingredients are there. It’s just like making a cake. We’ve got to make sure we’ve got everything and mix it up the right way,” Pearson said.
“We’re not going to put ceilings on this team, we’re not going to talk about our expectations or where we should finish. I don’t want to set the bar too high. But I think with this team the sky’s the limit. And it’s up to them. This is their team. I’m just directing them a little bit. But this is their team. They’re going to make the decision to go for it.”
Michigan’s leading scorer is freshman Jake Slaker, who recorded 21 points. His classmate, Will Lockwood, followed with 21. The most promising portion of Michigan’s 2016-17 campaign came from goaltending, with freshmen Hayden Lavigne and Jack LaFontaine posting a .912 and .911 save percentage, respectively.
Pearson said he has a few tweaks in mind for the program and will first spend time getting to know the players.
“We’re in great shape. I’ve had the opportunity to be given the keys to the prized family car,” Pearson said. “I’ve been given the keys. So I’m the driver now. The car’s in great shape, it’s got a great engine, the body looks fantastic. We might have to make a couple repairs here this summer, minor, minor repairs, and then we’re going to get that car ready to go on the road.
“And come September, that car is headed for one direction. And that direction is St. Paul, Minnesota.”