Michigan Tech rebuilding program
Huskies’ first-year coach Pearson looking to ‘change the culture’
Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson is set on changing the way the Huskies are perceived.
It’s a school and a community that hasn’t had all that much to get excited about in recent years. While Pearson was helping Red Berenson restore the Michigan hockey program to national power status -- recruiting and guiding the players who went to 21 consecutive NCAA tournaments, 11 Frozen Fours and NCAA Championships in 1996 and ’98 -- Michigan Tech’s own proud legacy, which includes championships in 1962, ’65 and ’75, had fallen on hard times.
In fact, the Huskies have not advanced to the NCAA Tournament since 1981, Pearson’s senior season.
However, Pearson started to lay the foundation this year. Traveling to face rival Northern Michigan on Friday, the Huskies are 9-8-1 (6-7-1 WCHA), and have been ranked in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll as recently as late November.
“What I really wanted to do when I came back is build a program so that our players could have the same experience I had when I was a student athlete here,” Pearson said. “I really enjoyed my time at Tech. Obviously, there’s some differences when you go from a Big Ten school to a smaller school like we are, but it doesn’t mean you can’t compete.”
A week ago, MTU scored a 3-2 overtime victory at Minnesota, the first road win against the Golden Gophers for every player on the Huskies’ roster.
“That’s one of the things that I really wanted to impress upon our players, that on any given night, we have a chance against anybody, to change the culture, for them to believe in themselves as hockey players” Pearson said. “They’re proud kids, and they’ve worked extremely hard, and I’m happy that they’re getting some results from all their hard work.”
A forward for the Huskies from 1977-81, Pearson certainly has his own memories of the Tech-Northern rivalry, but this will be his first time coaching the Huskies against their fiercest rivals.
“It’s special,” he said. “I seem to have a little bit more urgency about me this week, knowing it’s a big rivalry game. Obviously, when I was at Michigan, we played them quite a bit, and tend to treat it like just another game. As much as I would like to say I’m treating it like another game, you’re not, because it’s a game that you want to win not only for the hockey program, but for the school and the community.”
Said Senior Brett Olson: “Guys are tired of the way things had been going over the last couple of years. We’ve got some fresh faces around here as well, and we don’t want to lose anymore. When you’re used to losing like to that, you get stuck in a rut, but when you get a nice little attitude change here, good things can happen.
“There’s definitely a good buzz around the rink right now,” said Olson, who leads the Huskies with six goals and 13 assists in 18 games. “The seniors that are in the game know the rivalry and what it’s like and what to expect, so we want to make sure that we’re in it, and make sure that the other guys are in it and ready to go.”
For Blake Pietila, the Huskies’ top-scoring freshman with six goals and five assists, it’s a beginning; a native of Brighton, Mich., he is eager to experience the rivalry for the first time.
“Growing up, I always knew about it,” said Pietila, who initially committed to NMU before switching when older brother Chad transferred to MTU. “Some of the older guys have stressed the importance of it, and what a fast-paced, intense game it will be.”
Of course, while wins against marquee rivals like Wisconsin, Denver and the Golden Gophers are definitely signs of progress, the Huskies’ best opportunity to return to glory in the WCHA may not involve any of them.
In the 2013-2014 season, the Big Ten will begin conference play in men’s ice hockey, while eight other schools from the WCHA and CCHA will depart to form the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, leaving Michigan Tech in conference comprised largely of similar institutions, with Alaska, Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior, Minnesota State and Northern Michigan joining Tech in a nine-team WCHA.
In terms of putting a winning team on the ice, Pearson may have returned to his alma mater at just the right time, although he’s reserving judgment for now.
“There’s been a lot of upheaval in college hockey and a lot of change,” Pearson said. “All we can do is be the best program in whatever league we’re going to play in. If you can do that, then at the end of the day, you can be very competitive. You just have to take what you’re given and run with it, and all we can do is build our program into being the best it can be.”