University of Michigan hockey team's present, future will be on display Saturday in preseason opener
When the University of Michigan hockey team takes the ice for the first time this fall, it will play against part of its future.
The Wolverines open the preseason at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Yost Ice Arena against the United States National Team Development Program’s Under-18 team. The team is made up of some of the nation’s best young hockey players who attend Pioneer High School, train in Ann Arbor and play home games at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube.
Four players - goalie Jack Campbell (Port Huron), defenseman Jon Merrill (Brighton), defenseman Kevin Clare (New Rochelle, N.Y.) and forward Luke Moffatt (Paradise Valley, Ariz.) - have made verbal commitments to Michigan. Several more players have committed to other schools and can expect to be selected in June’s NHL draft.
“I think all the players are excited because it’s the first game of the year,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “The coaches are more interested in the players that we’ve recruited off that team.”The NTDP plays international competition, as well as several Division I and Division III colleges. Largely because of its location in Ann Arbor, the team has become somewhat of a feeder system for Michigan. Seven current Wolverines played for the NTDP, and overall the program has pumped 24 players into the Michigan program.
Michigan captain Chris Summers, who played for the NTDP, remembers what it was like to suit up against his future team.
“Any time you play a big-time Division I team, it just means the world to you, especially in a place like Yost,” Summers said, adding he was “a little nervous” when he played Michigan. “It took me a couple shifts to settle myself down and get the jitters out.”
It’s likely to be a similar experience for the current NTDP players who’ve made verbal commitments to Michigan.
“I know all the guys are looking forward to it,” Clare said. “It’s been one of the games that we’ve had circled on the calendar, especially for the kids who are going there.”
That’s not exactly what Kurt Kleinendorst, coach of the Under-18 team, wants to hear, but he understands the Michigan game will be special for some players.
“That’s a given, for sure, and that’s all part of it,” Kleinendorst said. “That will be fun for them, but I don’t think we’ll make more of it than what it is. We’re gonna go in there, try to play well against a very good hockey club and see where it gets us.”
Merrill, who followed Michigan while growing up in Brighton, called Saturday’s game “a dream come true.”
“If you live here, you always want to play for University of Michigan,” he said. “It’s been my dream ever since I was a little kid. I’ve been to so many games here that to finally be a part of it is going to be amazing.”
Merrill said he won’t feel any extra pressure playing against his future team.
“(Michigan coaches have) been watching us for two years now,” he said. “They know what we can and can’t do, so I don’t think you can base everything on one game. But obviously, it’s important to play well in the game because we want to win.”
Perhaps the strangest part, Moffatt said, is knowing Michigan fans - at least for now - are rooting against him.
“It will be weird hearing that against me and hearing it for me a year from now,” he said, “but it will be a good experience, I think.”
And by “good experience,” Moffatt means he’d like to “hit some of the older guys and maybe put one in the net - that’d be great.”
Campbell, who will start in net for the Under-18 team, anticipates seeing the most action against his future college program.
“They’re an offensive team, so I’ll be getting a lot of shots,” he said. “But we have a great team in front of me. My defensemen and forwards are ready to take care of business, and we’re ready to get a win.”
While it can be easy for NTDP players to take the ice with the future in mind - especially when they play against their future colleges - Kleinendorst said his job is to keep them focused on winning.
“It’s a great atmosphere to go in there and play against one of the elite programs,” Kleinendorst said of playing Michigan at Yost. “We’ll try not to focus on those things. We’ll just try to approach it - even though it’s not easy - like it’s just another game. We respect our opponent, and we better be ready to play, or we’ll get it handed to us.”
James Briggs covers sports for AnnArbor.com. Contact him at 734.623.2557 or firstname.lastname@example.org.