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Michigan’s NHL-Ready Hockey Team Plays in Frozen 4

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Mel Pearson, the University of Michigan men’s hockey coach, gestured together with his hand toward a small box in his office. His voice quavered as he described his players’ hopes of winning the upcoming Frozen 4, college hockey’s premier event.

“I just want it so bad for the players,” Pearson said. “They’ve been through a lot, they usually are such great kids.”

Pearson was trying to clarify that he has already carved out so many memories, but his voice trailed off and he burst into tears. He stood up, grabbed a tissue from his desk, apologized, shook his head and laughed. When asked what he had been pointing to, Pearson opened a small picket box stuffed with a dozen rings, all encrusted with the signature Michigan M. They included two that commemorated national championship teams in 1996 and 1998, when Pearson was an assistant to his mentor, Red Berenson.

Like Pearson, Michigan hockey has enjoyed its share of glory. It has been to more Frozen Fours (26) and won more hockey championships (nine) than some other university. But six of those titles were won before 1960, and none have are available in almost 1 / 4 century.

The present group of Wolverines, a gaudy assemblage of high-end talent never before seen on one college roster — with a back story of disappointment and sacrifice — has yet to affix the pantheon.

As Michigan enters the Frozen 4 against the University of Denver of their national semifinal on Thursday in Boston, the pressure is on the Wolverines and their glamorous roster. Minnesota and Minnesota State face off in the opposite semifinal, but not one of the other three teams — in reality, no team in college hockey history — contains a lineup just like the one Pearson recruited.

Michigan boasts seven N.H.L. first-round draft picks, including an unprecedented 4 of the top-five selections from 2021. That’s more top-five picks than the Tampa Bay Lightning have on their roster, and the Lightning won the last two Stanley Cups.

“It’s going to probably never occur again,” said freshman Luke Hughes, the No. 4 pick of the Devils. “And everyone knows we are going to never play together again, and we only have one shot at this. I don’t wish to say there’s pressure, but there’s a whole lot of desire. And perhaps somewhat little bit of pressure, too.”

On that night in July, minutes before the Devils selected Hughes, Owen Power, a defenseman from Ontario, became Michigan’s first No. 1 overall pick when Buffalo chosen him.

Matty Beniers, a slick playmaker from Massachusetts, was taken No. 2 by the Seattle Kraken. Hughes, whose brother Jack was taken No. 1 overall by the Devils in 2019 and leads the team in goals this season, was scooped up next at No. 4, and the Columbus Blue Jackets took center Kent Johnson at No. 5. Even Alabama football never had a top five like that (it got here close, with three taken in the highest five within the 1948 N.F.L. draft).

Watching the proceedings at home, Pearson gulped. In lower than an hour, practically his whole power play was wolfed up.

“It happened so fast,” Pearson said. “They were interviewing Matty after which bang, there goes Luke Hughes off the board after which bang, there goes Kent.”

Later in the primary round, the Florida Panthers took Mackie Samoskevich with the twenty fourth pick. Those five joined Johnny Beecher and Brendan Brisson, who were taken in the primary rounds in 2019 and 2020, to offer Michigan an astonishing seven first-rounders.

In college hockey, players can stay at school after they’re drafted, and the N.H.L. teams retain their rights. All seven picks, plus six more lower-round draftees, selected to come back back to Ann Arbor for one final probability to play together, and one last shot at a national championship.

“It’s hard to show down an N.H.L. contract when you’re drafted first, second, fifth,” said Nick Blankenburg, the Wolverines’ senior captain. “Numerous praise and respect for those guys coming back.”

As an enormous, sports-centric university in a Power Five conference, Michigan has many built-in benefits over smaller schools, including lavish facilities, financial might, and for the players, a history of developing players into commercially viable talent. Quinn Hughes, Luke and Jack’s older brother, played two years for Michigan and was the No. 7 overall pick by the Vancouver Canucks in 2018.

Former Michigan players are dotted across the N.H.L., each on the ice and in the published booth. Billy Jaffe, the Boston Bruins analyst for NESN, played at Michigan in 1988, the yr Pearson began as an assistant. He said it was unusual for top draft picks to spend a couple of yr at the faculty level.

“For all of them to come back back says something in regards to the program,” Jaffe said, “and likewise perhaps something about what happened last yr with Covid.”

This season’s origin story begins a yr ago in Fargo, N.D., because the Wolverines prepared to face Minnesota-Duluth in the primary round of the N.C.A.A. tournament. It is an element of what made Pearson so emotional. Because the players awoke from their pregame naps, they saw a text message from Pearson instructing them to collect immediately in a hotel meeting room. It was only three hours until puck drop.

“Once we saw our trainer’s face, we knew what was happening,” Blankenburg said.

Two players had tested positive for the coronavirus, and the N.C.A.A. disqualified the Wolverines. As a substitute of playing that night, the somber group went to the world and packed their equipment and returned to the hotel to attend for his or her plane home. Those that could stomach it watched Bemidji State beat Wisconsin on television.

“It was devastating,” Beniers recalled. “It’s one thing while you lose and one other thing while you don’t even get a probability to play.”

Like the opposite top draftees, Beniers said he was already leaning toward returning to Michigan for his sophomore yr because he enjoyed his freshman yr a lot, and the emptiness he felt after that inconclusive finale in 2021 made the choice far easier. During pre-draft meetings with N.H.L. teams, including the Kraken, Beniers told executives that in the event that they expected him join their clubs straight away, they might need to fight his mother over it.

Christine Maglione Beniers, a Boston-area lawyer — who also acted in “A Chorus Line” on Broadway — wanted her son to have the entire college experience. However the few games Michigan played were staged in empty arenas, classes were online and campus social life was restricted.

There’ll all the time be time to skate against 33-year-old N.H.L. bruisers like Pat Maroon and Milan Lucic.

“I don’t know what the large rush is to get to the following level while you haven’t even fully experienced this one,” Maglione Beniers said in a telephone interview. “Ultimately, it was his decision. But it surely’s the last probability you might have to be around and play with kids your personal age.”

But Michigan, with 31 wins, nine losses and one tie, is removed from perfect. It lost all 4 of its regular-season games against Notre Dame before beating the Irish within the conference tournament, and it almost let slip away a 4-0 lead within the third period of its second-round N.C.A.A. tournament win against Quinnipiac. However the Wolverines held on to succeed in this system’s twenty sixth Frozen 4, and this time with a team laden with N.H.L. talent.

“Last yr ended with such a disappointment,” Power said. “All of us wanted to come back back and do something really big.”

Power, a quiet, 6-foot-5 defenseman, will likely play for the Sabres in Buffalo, a couple of 90-minute drive from his home within the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. Returning to Michigan gave him one last probability to play in a 100-year-old rink with the band pumping out the fight song, to live communally with teammates and to share a dream with those whose early wish was simply to get a proposal from a university.

“It’s special to be an element of it,” Blankenburg said. “I’ll look back in 20 years, when I actually have a family, and simply to have the option to say I played with these guys, and the stuff what we went through, I’ll cherish it perpetually.”

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