Feb. 6, 2014
On the eve of the Winter Olympics, Michigan ice hockey fans will need a television guide and a lot of free time to track the three alumni who will join Olympic ice hockey teams this week. Carl Hagelin (Sweden), Max Pacioretty (USA) and Brian Lebler (Austria) will represent Michigan at the Olympics, which run from Feb. 7-23. Only once before has Michigan had three ice hockey Olympians -- the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, when Willard Ikola and John Matchefts skated for the United States, and Bob White skated for Canada.
For Hagelin, Pacioretty and Lebler, there was certainly suspense in the selection process. Each player took a unique path to get to these Olympic Games, but all three were together for one memorable season at Michigan, the 2007-08 campaign.
That year the team finished the season 33-6-4, winning CCHA regular-season and tournament titles en route to a Frozen Four appearance.
"You look back, and that was a young team," Michigan head coach Red Berenson said. "Brian was part of a small class, not unlike this year's senior class. Carl and Max were part of a talented, big freshman class, just like our freshman class now. So there is a little bit of a comparison to that team that year."
The Wolverines lost in a wild Frozen Four semifinal against Notre Dame at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Co. In that game, Michigan rallied from a 3-0 first-period deficit to tie the game, then rallied again trailing 4-3 late in the third period, as Hagelin scored with 5:21 remaining in regulation to send the game into overtime. But Notre Dame's Calle Ridderwall scored at 5:44 of OT to end Michigan's winningest season since the 1998 national championship team.
"We had a very talented team that year, but we also had great group of guys who were all close but also pushed each other," Lebler said as he prepared to depart for Sochi. "It was unfortunate that we were unable to achieve our goal as national champions. What sticks with me from that year was how special the team was. You don't get to be on many teams that seem to click like we did. It is hard to explain, but it was exciting to be a part of."
Lebler's heritage, perseverance pave way to Sochi
Brian Lebler, then a sophomore in 2007-08, was in and out of the Michigan lineup, and did not play in the deciding game of the Wolverines' season that year. But over the next two seasons at U-M, Lebler became a regular on Michigan's third line, peaking during his senior year in 2009-10.
That season he set career highs for goals (14), assists (10), points (24) and plus/minus (+9) and received the team's Joseph E. Barss Award as the best team player as decided by the coaching staff. Michigan fell one win shy of returning to the Frozen Four, falling to Miami, 3-2 (2OT) in the Midwest Regional Final.
After graduating from Michigan, Lebler spent one season playing minor league hockey in the United States before making a calculated decision to move to Austria to continue his professional career.
Lebler was born in Austria but moved to Penticton, British Columbia, at the age of four with his family.
"I never played hockey in Austria being so young before we moved so that's why I was not able to play on any national teams before," Lebler said. "You need at least two years playing in the country, before you're eligible, and I was fortunate enough to come back to Austria and play hockey two seasons ago."
In his third season with Linz EHC in the Austrian Hockey League, Lebler leads the team with 26 goals in 43 games this season and is tied for third in the league in goal scoring.
He was watching a live stream of the press conference to announce the Austrian Olympic Team when he heard his name called.
"I was thrilled to hear my name," Lebler said. "It was a goal of mine and a dream growing up to play in the Olympics."
While Austria has a difficult road ahead in group play, paired with Canada, Finland and Norway in Group B, Lebler is looking forward to his Olympic experience and a reunion with Hagelin and Pacioretty.
"I was thrilled to hear that two fellow teammates of mine were also getting an opportunity to play in the Olympics," Lebler said. "I expect we will meet up at some point in Sochi. It would be great to be able to watch them play and cheer them on as well."
Lebler looks back on his experience at Michigan as transformative in his path to the Olympics.
"We were all young, and I believe what we learned from Coach Berenson and the University of Michigan definitely helped us grow as players and as people."
Pacioretty's sensational freshman season a precursor for NHL success.
Max Pacioretty had an outstanding freshman season at Michigan, signing a professional contact with the Montreal Canadiens at the conclusion of a campaign in which he recorded 15 goals and 24 assists.
"Max left after one year, where he was CCHA Rookie of the Year, and Montreal signed him, and he's been a very good player for them," Berenson said.
In his sixth season with Montreal, Pacioretty is on pace to set a new career high in goals scored with 23 in 48 games played this year. Entering the season, Pacioretty was not a lock to make Team USA, but his performance drew the attention of USA head coach Dan Bylsma, who ultimately decided to include him on the 25-man roster as one of the team's 14 forwards.
"It's a huge honor. I never thought it would be a reality until things got closer to the decision date," Pacioretty said. "I didn't focus on it for too long but just let myself play my game and let it play itself out, and I think that's why that happened. Going over to Sochi to represent your country is a dream come true, and I'm thrilled that I'm going to be able to do it."
Pacioretty was in Detroit to play the Red Wings on Jan. 24, his first time returning to Joe Louis Arena since his days at Michigan. After the team's practice on Jan. 23, Pacioretty returned to the Joe to watch Michigan defeat Michigan State, 2-1.
"It's the greatest school in the world. I'll always have a place in my heart for Michigan," Pacioretty said. "It took me a little bit to get adjusted (to the NHL), but I think my time with Red and my time at Michigan got me well prepared."
While in Russia, Pacioretty hopes to meet up with his former Michigan teammates while preparing for a medal run with Team USA, which is seeking its first gold medal since the "Miracle on Ice" 1980 team.
"I haven't seen Lebler in a while, so it's going to be awesome to catch up with him," Pacioretty said. "I see Carl a little bit more, playing against him during the year. It's a special bond, going to Michigan and being able to represent our countries with guys like that is definitely an honor."
A four-year star at Michigan, Hagelin's rise continues
Carl Hagelin's journey to Michigan is well documented. As a 12 year old, he attended a Red Berenson Hockey Camp with his older brother Bobbie while visiting cousins in the Ann Arbor area, where he was first noticed by the Michigan head coach.
Hagelin became Michigan's first player from Sweden and went on to record 152 points (61g, 91a) in an outstanding four-year college career for the Maize and Blue. A left wing for the Wolverines, Hagelin led the team in scoring as a junior (19-31-50) and a senior (18-31-49). He served as an alternate captain in 2009-10 when U-M won the CCHA Tournament and was a co-captain for the 2010-11 squad that captured the CCHA regular-season title and finished as the NCAA Tournament runner-up.
A fan favorite at Yost Ice Arena, Hagelin went from a fringe NHL prospect to a major contributor at the NHL level beginning with his rookie year with the New York Rangers in 2011-12, when he recorded 38 points (14g, 24a) in 64 games.
Because of his relative anonymity before his star turn at Michigan, Hagelin's only experience prior to Sochi at the international level with Team Sweden was playing in the 2008 World Junior Tournament.
"Carl stayed for four years, and he's made it with the Rangers and obviously is deserving of making the Swedish team, and that's a real tribute to him," Berenson said.
Having proved himself at the collegiate and NHL level, Hagelin's selection for Team Sweden in January was all but assured.
"I knew in the summer I was on the 35-man roster," Hagelin said. "I knew there was always a chance. I was always hoping to make it. It's a huge honor to be a part of Team Sweden."
One of the tournament favorites, Sweden is loaded with recognizable names at every position, from the Sedin twins up front, to Erik Karlsson on defense, and Henrik Lundqvist in net.
"You get to play with and against the best players in the world," Hagelin said. "For me, it's first time I've played with the national team at this level. The World Juniors was the last time I played for Sweden. I'm definitely excited, and I'm going to learn a lot from this."
Berenson to follow progress of three alumni
For Michigan head coach Red Berenson, having three recent alumni in the Olympics certainly is another point of pride for a program that has had many during his 30 years as head coach.
"People that are following hockey from all levels realize that college hockey has really made in-roads," Berenson said. "There are more and more NHL players that come from college, and each time the Olympic teams come up, you would normally see a lot of U.S. college players playing on the U.S. team, but you'd rarely see a U.S. college player on another team."
In February, when the three former Michigan teammates are reunited in Sochi, their former coach and plenty of Michigan fans will be watching.
"It's really good for us, and I'm proud of our players," Berenson said.