ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In the winter of 1976, only two college hockey programs recruited Mel Pearson: Michigan Tech and Michigan.
Pearson knew of Red Berenson, a former college hockey star at Michigan who was at the tail end of his NHL career, and he knew of the Wolverines. But Michigan Tech won out for the high schooler from suburban Minneapolis. Pearson spent the next 11 years on Michigan’s upper peninsula, first as a player and then as an assistant coach.
Yet he didn’t grasp Berenson’s wisdom and charisma until he joined Michigan’s staff nearly 30 years ago.
“I remember the first time I actually sat down and talked to Red,” Pearson said. “It was an awesome, awesome conversation. And I know he’s probably fired me 15 times and I’ve probably quit about 10, but it was a great relationship.”
Now Pearson is replacing Berenson, one of the most accomplished coaches in college hockey. Michigan introduced Pearson as its new hockey coach Monday afternoon in Ann Arbor.
Pearson joined Berenson’s staff as an assistant coach in 1988 and stayed until 2011, when he became head coach of the Huskies. In six years, he led Michigan Tech to a pair of NCAA Tournament berths, a Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season championship and a WCHA tournament championship.
Michigan Tech AD Suzanne Sanregret: "I do really appreciate all that (Mel Pearson) has done to make Michigan Tech hockey relevant again."
— George Sipple (@GeorgeSipple) April 24, 2017
Less than a few minutes into his new job, Pearson set a goal for the Wolverines.
“I’m not interested in being good,” Pearson said. “I’m interested [in] and I want to be great. That’s what we need here, we need greatness. And that’s what the University of Michigan stands for.”
Part of a standard
In Berenson’s 33 seasons, Michigan won two national titles and qualified for the Frozen Four 11 times. Michigan also made the NCAA Tournament 22 consecutive seasons, from 1991 to 2012, and has produced countless NHL players, from current Montreal Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty to former Dallas Stars goaltender Marty Turco.
Pearson was a part of it, whether it was recruiting players or diagramming plays behind the bench at Yost Ice Arena.
“I gave him a lot of authority and a lot of responsibility, and he ran with it,” Berenson said. “And I could see him becoming a head coach.”
That moment came in 2011, when Pearson returned to Houghton to take over a flailing Michigan Tech program. The Huskies once produced Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender Tony Esposito, but in the season before hiring Pearson, Michigan Tech won only four games.
Midway through the 2012-13 season, Pearson met his mentor.
“The first time when we played [Michigan], it was difficult,” said Pearson, whose teams beat Michigan three times in a span of six seasons. “You have mixed emotions. You want to show your old boss that you learned something from him that’s respectable. Fortunately we were able to win a couple games along the way.
“I remember coming back to Yost, too, and it was … odd. It was really odd, going to the visitors’ bench. You spend 23 years somewhere and you have to go over to that bench? Where the students are behind you, chanting, ‘ugly parents’ and all that stuff?”
Pearson laughed. His teams were 0-3-1 at Yost.
A move to the future
As Berenson’s time at Michigan appeared to dwindle, Pearson’s name continuously was mentioned as a successor to the venerable coach.
When Berenson announced his retirement earlier in April, it came as a shock to few. The program wasn’t where it traditionally should be — in the NCAA Tournament or even in contention for a Big Ten Conference title.
Pearson outlined his plan for the Wolverines: greatness.
Even though Michigan stumbled to a 13-19-3 record this season, with a lineup of primarily freshmen and sophomores, Berenson didn’t take Pearson’s statement as a slight. Instead, he shouldered the burden.
“We’ve always set the bar high,” Berenson said. “We expect it to be there every year. Some teams expect to make the playoffs and make the [NCAA] Tournament once in a while. And we expect it every year. It’s been frustrating not to be that team. We had a real good team two years ago, a not-so-good team this year, so we’re still trying to be better.
“Mel’s wired that way. He wants to get better. He wants Michigan to be better. We all want it to be better. I think it’s win-win. It’s not good enough right now. And that’s one of the reasons I’m getting out of the way. We’ve got to get better.”
That’s what Pearson wants.
That’s what Berenson wants, too.
“I’m not going to keep hanging on and trying to get it where it should be,” Berenson said. “I think it’s time. And it’s Mel’s time now.”