Dec 9, 2011; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach Red Berenson (center) watches the game in the third period against the Michigan State Spartans at Yost Arena. Michigan won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan Hockey: More Than A Few Words On The Season…

Posted at 7:00am — 4/3/2013

Michigan Hockey: More Than A Few Words On The Season…

It has taken me some time to absorb all the dynamics that this season provided. It was probably the most frustrating, emotionally charged season that I have witnessed- and I have been a Yost observer since 1996 and a Michigan hockey follower since the early 1980’s. Even the 2010 miracle run was not THIS dramatic, nor were the reconstructive early years of the Berenson Era.
The season started auspiciously with the sudden departure of a blue-line recruit that decided to spurn Michigan for the OHL. Then, a serious injury that defensive anchor Jon Merrill suffered in the very first exhibition game against the University of Windsor caused great concern not only for Merrill’s career, but for Michigan’s confidence. Merrill’s loss put immediate pressure on a fairly young group of defenders. It was apparent from the opening night overtime loss to RIT that this team was going to struggle defensively. The goal-tending woes were troubling, as were the carefree and lackadaisical defensive coverage.

Injuries continued to mount, especially on the blue-line, forcing a little used walk-on and a reserve senior forward to step back to the blue-line to help out. Jacob Trouba, Michigan’s prize rookie defender, set the tone early that he was not only going to unleash his potent shot on unsuspecting goaltenders, but he was going to add a physical element to Michigan’s blue-line. It took the freshman some time to realize that he needed to stay on the ice to contribute to the Wolverine’s cause. His improvement over the season was subtle, after being caught out of position numerous times while attempting to make bone rattling hits. He became more mature, more conscious of his responsibilities on the ice and to his teammates. By season end he was probably the most skilled and most feared defense-man in the CCHA. It was still not enough to help a team that started spinning out of control in October and never quite found itself until February.

The offense sputtered. It wasn’t for lack of talent, since the roster was chock full of NHL draftees. The goal-tending rotation wasn’t working. Defensive assignments continued to be neglected. The collective inconsistent effort was maddening and led to speculation that trouble was brewing in the locker room. Several key members of that team were visibly dogging it.

It’s no secret to the avid Michigan Hockey fan that this was not going to be an easy year. What was more insulting were the questions being raised about the team’s heart and desire. The twitter world was abuzz with former U-M hockey alums calling out the team and imploring their re-dedication and commitment to the block M on the front of their sweater. Even the student media took their turn examining what was wrong with this team. Was it coaching? Was it chemistry? Was it heart?

In the end, it isn’t important to speculate about the disruptive personnel or their motivation since the causes are complex and the roots are buried in the privacy of the locker room. Yes, there was dissension and no, it wasn’t addressed by the leadership on the team nor the coaches, in an immediate fashion. That was a mistake considering the amazing turnabout that took place in the team’s last ten contests. Frankly, there wasn’t a blueprint laid out for the four newly minted captains on how to handle all of the dynamics going on. Nor was there a means to lay blame at the feet of the goal-tending who only shared part of the problem- at least on the ice. Berenson even turned internally and questioned his own value to the program, especially if a turnaround wasn’t realized. He was even going to step down for the betterment of the program. Lessons were learned, painfully, about how a group of athletes neglected to cherish the privilege and opportunity they were given. They collectively chose to stay fragmented. An unhappy freshman defected, others questioned the direction they were given and they clashed among themselves and with coaches-who responded with benching and suspensions. It wasn’t until the senior leaders (and a brash set of underclassmen) grabbed the team after wasting most of their season and finally got through to their team that the margin of error was woefully slim. They had to work together and become each others ally and not each others enemy. Redemption was a steep hill- and with equal credit due (after three quarters of the season filled with deserved criticism) this team finally lived up to the work ethic and skill that they most of us expected they had. The results spoke for themselves.

But, much like life, not all endings are happy and not all goals are fulfilled. It was a just result, considering that the body of their entire work weighed heavily in missing the NCAA playoffs.
Now, the blogosphere is dissecting and second guessing this season… with some even describing it as an absolute failure. That is the prerogative of those writers. None are completely wrong in their assessments, yet some judgments/opinions are much more critical than I choose to pass. The goals, as I mentioned above, were not met- but this season served as a valuable, humbling learning experience for this program. Unfortunately, the departing seniors (and other departing teammates) will forever be branded and will have to always live with the stigma that “they were the class that broke the streak”. Let’s put it into perspective, here. If you really want to judge “failure”, do it in an absolute manner. 59 Division I teams compete for (16) NCAA playoff bids. That means that when the conference tournaments end, 43 teams are eliminated. In two weeks, only one team out of those original 59 teams will stand up as champions meaning 58 others “failed” in competitive terms. I doubt that most of those other teams (or their fans) will label their season as a “failure”. I suspect that most will be disappointed, others resolute in returning again to achieve a better campaign the next season. Most seasons Michigan fans slot our program result into one of those categories.

It was a poor season in our terms, but a failure? Not any more than bowing out in agonizing fashion in OT in their first round NCAA game last season. Not any more than the overtime dagger in the Frozen Four in 2008, or the Final in 2011. Not to me, anyway- if you really want to boil down what a Michigan fan *should* expect from any of their athletic programs. And if you believe that this is the only life lesson that these student athletes should strive for… then you are missing the gist of my subtle sarcasm. Failure to me, in other terms, means that the permeating attitude that poisoned this team remained and was not remedied. We don’t need to accept the fruits of this season, yet the silver lining is, this bad taste should serve as motivation for change next season. One season was sacrificed, wasted… but it will not spell failure for those who stay. The program will endure and a renewed spirit will hopefully prevent the leadership void, the lack of effort and the individual selfishness that divided this team.

Michigan’s hockey program has been the penultimate example of excellence for the past two and a half decades. The legacy, pride and expectation aside, only two of those years ended in the national prize, yet we don’t chastise those other teams for their shortcoming-even when the expectations were greater than the result. Of course many of those teams won conference titles and GLI titles, too, so it is easy to say that those teams did achieve more than the 2012-13 addition. They may also have had greater talent- so measure their success carefully.

This season did not live up to the high expectations we all placed on this program and much of it rested on the shoulders of the individuals in that locker room. Yet, their decision to turn their fortunes around the complete reversal in the effort, the desire, the pride and the will they illustrated should be honored, not chastised for falling short of their rededicated goal. It will serve this program as a lesson that this complacent and destructive path must be avoided at all costs and that there is a high price to pay from October to April in order to fulfill the goals that this program sets every season. I suspect that the next set of leaders will not let this happen- and that there will be further attrition from the roster as collateral fallout from this season. I also believe that Coach Berenson will not be as tolerant next season, either. He wants to complete his remaining three years on a high note and his method of letting the team work out their issues on the ice will also be tweaked. Berenson has also epitomized the belief that coaching at an institution of higher learning is also a teaching role. He will use this season as the ultimate teaching moment and will make this program even stronger for it. The next incoming class is talented and will provide exciting moments for the Maize and Blue. Expectations will be raised again. Let’s keep it in perspective.

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Written by GBMWolverine Staff — YostMeister

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