About a hundred Michigan Tech hockey fans and boosters, and local media members packed a conference room Monday evening in the Student Development Complex to meet the new faces of Husky hockey at Tech’s Meet the Coaches event to kick off the 2011/12 season.
First year Head Coach Mel Pearson introduced himself and his wife Susie, to whom he jokingly directed any “questions or complaints about the power play”. He also introduced new assistant coaches and retired NHL players Bill Muckalt and Steve Shields, along with holdover assistant Damon Whitten, who took some good-natured hits for being the lone MSU Spartan in attendance. Shields is the team’s new volunteer goalie coach, Muckalt will oversee offense and the power play, and Whitten will coach defense and the penalty kill.
Also present were the six incoming freshmen Husky skaters. After each of the players – Nick Cecere, Jimmy Davis, David Johnstone, Tanner Kero, Blake Pietila, and Riley Sweeney – were given a chance to introduce themselves and offered their takes on the transition to college hockey (bigger, faster, stronger), the coaches took wide-ranging questions from the audience.
Pearson made it clear that he expects the team to excel above and beyond what they might be accustomed to. “We’re pushing these guys,” he said. “We’re trying to push the right buttons.” He also reiterated his commitment to encouraging offensive creativity, and pointed out that this goal meshes well with players like Johnstone, Kero, and Pietila coming in. Although Pietila presented himself as “a winger” and Kero said that he hopes to play center, Pearson insisted that these positions haven’t yet been finalized. He also said that the coaching staff is still evaluating the players’ personalities, and that assistants to Captain Brett Olson will be named after Saturday’s exhibition game against Lakehead. A couple of times, Pearson stressed that he’s a “positive coach.” He wants to encourage players during games when they do well, and save reprimands for private meetings later.
The new assistant coaches talked about their favorable introduction to Houghton and Michigan Tech, and expressed a devotion to Coach Pearson that he earned in their years as Michigan Wolverines.
According to Muckalt, Pearson called him to ask if he was interested in coming on board at Tech, and Muckalt’s answer was immediate: “Yes.” After a long silence on the phone, Pearson asked why. “I believe in you,” Muckalt answered.
The laid-back Shields had similar sentiments about being given the chance to coach under Pearson, and showed good humor when the story came up of a goal Muckalt once scored on him in Vancouver. Shields sees his volunteer position as a chance to give something back to the game of hockey and said he also believes in what Tech’s coaching staff wants to accomplish. When Pearson was asked about goaltending strategies, he said he’ll be relying a lot on Shields’ advice. Shields said that while “Typically, you’d like to see a senior stand up and take the reins,” nothing has been settled yet and he is willing to have the goalies share duties.
On realignment in college hockey, Pearson said that he’d have preferred the WCHA stay as it is, but that the way to make the best of it is to “be the best team in whatever conference we’re in.” He was asked if realignment will have an effect on recruiting, and answered emphatically, “No.” After a pause, he went on to suggest that in the mind of a 17 or 18-year-old player, conference affiliations are pretty far down the list of priorities.
Going forward after realignment, Pearson said that he has already invited Red Berenson and his Michigan Wolverines to travel to Houghton for a series, and is “pursuing aggressively” future non-conference games with Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Duluth. He also mentioned that the Great Lakes Invitational tournament slate has unofficially been filled through the 2014/15 season.
Pearson said that he’s working with University Marketing to boost student participation at the games, which he also sees as a high priority. His plans include sending out an email to the student body, making himself and his staff available at campus events, and taking part in Homecoming activities. He offered a possibility of himself and his assistants going to the dorms to hand out season schedules.
Pearson, his assistants, and the incoming players left a good impression on the crowd, and many opted for a tour of the locker room facilities after the presentation.