Kornacki: A Conversation with U-M's New Ice Hockey Coach

April 24, 2017

By Steve Kornacki

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The first thing fans should know about Mel Pearson is that he's a winner who was raised in hockey by a trio of Wolverine legends as well as a father who played in the NHL for the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins.

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The second thing that stands out about Pearson is that he's a people person with a lively sense of humor. When I asked what made him proudest from his near quarter-century as a University of Michigan assistant coach, he said it was the relationships built with his players. He also frequently makes light of things while making points.

Pearson, named the head coach at Michigan Monday afternoon (April 24), exactly two weeks after Red Berenson retired with 848 victories in 33 seasons, was largely developed by three Wolverines who won NCAA championships as either players or coaches.

Willard Ikola, who coached Pearson, 58, at Edina (Minnesota) High, was the All-America goalie for Michigan's 1952 and 1953 national title teams.

Berenson scored 79 goals in 68 games for the Wolverines and coached them to NCAA championships in 1996 and 1998, when Pearson was in the middle of a 23-year run as his assistant.

John MacInnes, a former Michigan goalie, coached Pearson at Michigan Tech, where he guided the Huskies to all three of their NCAA championships and made his final Frozen Four appearance with Pearson as a senior forward in 1981.

The glory of MacInnes had long since eroded when Pearson returned as the head coach at his alma mater in 2011-12. Michigan Tech had three coaches over a 15-year span, and each left after winning fewer than 30 percent of his games. Tech hit rock bottom at 4-30-4 the season before Pearson took over.

Pearson went 29-10-2 in his fourth season, took the Huskies to a pair of NCAA Tournaments, won a WCHA championship and the conference coach of the year award, got them ranked No. 1 in 2014, and finished with a run of three consecutive top-20 teams and a .562 winning percentage.

Berenson, 77, sat in a chair, literally outside the spotlight, as Pearson was interviewed by MGoBlue.com's Ed Kengerski following his introductory press conference, and afterward I spent some time with Pearson.

Join us in that back room at Crisler Center for our conversation:

Q. Why do you love hockey?

A. I didn't have a choice. I was born into it. My dad (George Alexander Melvin "Mel" Pearson) played pro hockey (for 15 seasons) and so I was around it all the time. I was very fortunate to spend a lot of time at the rink with my dad. He was with the Rangers and all over the minors from Baltimore to Buffalo to Portland, Oregon, to L.A. to Vancouver. Then, in his last year in Minnesota, where he played for the Fighting Saints in the World Hockey Association.

One of the best things that happened to me was when we moved to Minnesota going into my freshman year of high school. That gave me an opportunity to get much better than I would've in Portland. My coach, Willard Ikola, was a great coach, and I still stay in touch with him.

I was so fortunate. I had Willard Ikola, John MacInnes and Red Berenson. I mean, I don't know if anyone could have it better than that. It was just fantastic. They taught me in high school and college and impacted who I am today.

Q. Your sense of humor came out during the press conference. You like to laugh. Who makes you laugh?

A. I got that from my dad, and he was a great guy. I still run into people when I'm recruiting who mention to me what a great guy my dad was. He was a little bit of a prankster, and so I got it from him. He was on the lighter side. There's a time for some humor here and there, but I'm obviously serious about hockey and academics.

But there's a time to laugh, too.

Q. Both of your parents have passed away, but what do you believe they would've said if they were still alive today?

A. I didn't mention either of my parents at the press conference, but obviously they were influential. They sent me away from home when I was 15 to get an opportunity to go to college, and I am the first person in our family that ever graduated from college. My dad retired when we were in Minnesota, and I stayed behind and went to high school. Then I'd always go back to Flin Flon (Manitoba, Canada) in the summer. Coach Berenson and my dad actually played in a junior league all-star game in Saskatchewan when they were growing up, and I still have the team photo with them in it.

My parents would be very proud today and honored. I think they'd be most proud, coaching aside, of the person I became. To get to a position like this, they'd be proud of that. But they'd be more proud of the person and family man I turned out to be.

Q. Athletic director Warde Manuel, who was the hockey administrator when you were assisting Red, made sport of Flin Fon while introducing you. Where does that city name come from?

A. It's a small mining community (part of it is actually in Saskatchewan), and the (copper) prospector who found Flin Flon had a book ("The Sunless City") with a fictional character named (Josiah) Flintabbatey Flonatin. So, they cut it down to Flin Flon, and it's produced some pretty good hockey players like Bobby Clarke and Reggie Leach.

Q. You had most of your family here today. Your wife, Susie, and daughters, Sarah and Kim, were here. You said your son, Paul, was in Chicago. Are you about to become a grandfather?

A. Yeah, Red's giving me a hard time about becoming a grandpa. Sarah, my middle one, is pregnant, and all three of my kids went to Michigan, and my son-in-law is a Michigan grad. So, I had to come back!

Q. What do you remember about the first time you met Red, when you were a Michigan Tech assistant (1982-88) and he was a new head coach here?

A. We were recruiting in Minneapolis and somehow happened to be staying at the same hotel. We got together and had a chat. Like I said, he knew of me and my family. I still remember that.

Q. What has Red's biggest impact been on you?

A. I'd say it's just the way he carries himself with professionalism and how he approached the game and coached people and stressed education. He walks the walk, and with his honesty and integrity you know what you are going to get.

People see him as this stoic guy, but he also had a great sense of humor. Like when I called to tell him I got the job and he said, 'Mel who?' That was classic. He'd invite us over for Thanksgiving and made a big impact on me getting to know players off the ice. They are more than student-athletes. They are human beings and guys you want to get to know. If you show them that you care, they are going to play harder for you.

Q. What did you see today in the eyes of your players when you talked to them for the first time?

A. I saw excitement; I saw a synergy there. You can tell if they're thinking, 'Oh, (crap), who is this guy coming in here?' But I saw enthusiasm. They were into it and focused. That was important.

Q. You told them that you didn't want to be good, and asked rising sophomore forward Will Lockwood why he thought that was.

A. Yeah, that's an old Vince Lombardi thing and Will, luckily, hadn't heard it, that you don't want to be good, you want to be great. I want us to be great.

Q. What was your top Michigan memory?

A. The two national championships. I can't choose between them. In '96, we had a heck of a team. The '98 team was maybe a little bit of an underdog team.

Q. Are there one or two players from your Michigan years who you've stayed close to?

A. Cam Stewart. We're still friends with Roger and Sandy, Cam's parents. He's been a good resource. Billy Muckalt obviously is a guy I've stayed in touch with. I recruited him here once and then for four years with me as an assistant at Michigan Tech. I've had a really good relationship with him.

(Note: Muckalt currently is coach and general manager of the USHL's Tri-City Storm in Kearney, Nebraska, and led them to the Clark Cup championship in 2016.)

Q. You've coached against Red 10 times and beat him the last time, 2-0, in the Great Lakes Invitational in December. What did you find out about Red when you went against him?

A. What a competitor he was. I knew that, but the reason I say that is because there's no, 'Let's get together chummy-chummy.' It was, 'We're here to beat you' and very old school. He wanted to win and didn't care who it was against.

He's got me, 4-5-1, and I'm never going to be able to change that (loud laughter). He'll always have that on me. And good for him. I'm just so privileged and honored to come back and lead a program like Michigan. I'm extremely excited and can't wait.

Pearson Selected to Lead Michigan Ice Hockey Program

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