In the wake of the WilmerHale investigation that led to the firing of Mel Pearson at the University of Michigan, the college hockey community has been abuzz with talk around our maize and blue neighbors to the south. Many in the college hockey community, especially right here in our Huskies family have been asking the same questions: “How deep is the Mel Pearson iceberg? How long has this behavior been happening? Was there any possible way to predict this fallout?” Above all, what I was most interested in finding out the answer to the question most relevant to our readership: “did Mel Pearson create a similarly toxic culture during his Michigan Tech tenure?”
Recently, columnist and well-loved Old Dog Mike Anleitner published a great article detailing his beliefs on the matter at hand. I would consider it requisite reading for this article, but it can be read independently. In his article, Mike gives a brief detail of Pearson’s coaching and playing tenure, as well as his experienced and well-rationalized thoughts on what may have caused his downfall (Mike, I promise this isn’t me calling you old).
Since the announcement of Pearson’s departure at U of M, I’ve gotten to work talking to former Michigan Tech players about their experiences with Pearson. I did my best to make the questions as open-ended as possible and players were welcome to take their thoughts in whichever direction they felt comfortable. I truly wanted to get to the root of the experience the average player had under Pearson.
From the formation of the idea for this article, my goal in writing this was never to write a Mel Pearson hit piece. I genuinely want to get to the bottom of what Pearson was like for our players as a person, coach, mentor and advocate during his Michigan Tech tenure.
Please note as you read that players were given the option to remain anonymous. The wishes of each individual have been respected as indicated to me.
Hockey has a culture problem from top to bottom. Even before the WilmerHale investigation into Pearson, we saw it with the Blackhawks scandal in the Brad Aldrich situation, which was allowed to continue for so long that it shook our very own Copper Country community. We’re currently seeing similarly egregious allegations against Hockey Canada during the 2003 World Junior Championship. Our sport has a serious problem with addressing locker room issues, especially at high levels and especially when championships are on the line.
While there is currently nothing to suggest or substantiate a claim that a transgression of that degree happened under Pearson’s watch at Michigan Tech, it’s important to remember that I’m asking people that belong to a deeply flawed culture to identify flaws in that culture. When you’ve lived your whole life believing a certain standard of procedures is normal, it can be hard to call that into question.
It’s also common that players at all levels of hockey develop negative views of coaches if they think their careers weren’t advanced by a coach. Sometimes that’s due to over-inflated expectations, and sometimes it’s other things. And at other times, it arises from a coach that put his own career far ahead of his players’ futures.
With that said, I think all of the players I received responses from did a superb job sharing their experiences, both positive and negative. I am also not accusing any former or current Michigan Tech players of perpetuating or being complicit in a toxic culture.
While I know many Tech fans are probably foaming at the mouth to get to the bad part of Pearson’s Michigan Tech tenure, it’s important to point out some of the good things he did for our program. After decades of irrelevance, he was able to bring some prestige. When Tech had fallen into a lull of accepting, let’s face it, terrible hockey, Pearson came in and raised the bar back up to national prominence. Several players had nothing but glowing things to say about him, the way he ran the program, the way they were treated as people and the way Pearson advocated for them beyond their days at Tech.
One former player said “I thought he really changed the program and put it back on the map. There’s no arguing that he didn’t. Playing for Jamie Russel for three years I felt very lucky to have a coach like Mel come in.”
Alex MacLeod (2008-2012) saw a clear culture change happen for the better at Michigan Tech under Pearson. “We [won] a lot of games. Thought it was pretty great. Was a solid coach and motivator. Didn’t tolerate attitude from players… The only thing bad I can say about the guy, is he could have put me on the power play, I had a lot of points for a guy on the 4th line. 20 I believe.”
A former captain offered a unique perspective a player that was rostered during Pearson’s departure. “Mel was a great coach that turned Tech into a winning program. He created a winning culture and got the best out of us. He treated us with respect and always had our back.”
The most glowing review of Pearson I read came from an unlikely source: Milos Gordic (2009-2013). “…As a person he liked everyone. Man to man. I know he was a good coach. Probably best coach I’ve had. In the locker room he cared for his players.” Gordic continues, “…I believe [Pearson getting fired] is a disgrace. Him getting fired is terrible for hockey. He could be an NHL coach.”
While it may be surprising to many Tech fans, especially during the eras in which some of these players played, a lot of players genuinely enjoyed playing under coach Pearson and consider him to be a great advocate and confidant. During an episode of Chasing MacNaughton podcast two seasons ago, Matt Roy said he keeps in regular contact with him. While arguably the most high-profile former Husky, Roy almost assuredly isn’t the only former Michigan Tech player doing so.
Pearson dragged our program, kicking and screaming at times, back into relevance. Without beating a dead horse any more than it already has been, it’s tough to argue against that point. However, the fact remains that as a person and as an advocate he fell short for more than a number of former players.
The most publicly outspoken Pearson detractor has hands-down been Daniel Sova (2010-2014).
When asked for further comment on whether or not he noticed any behavioral problems from Pearson during his time at Tech, Sova was more than willing to talk about his experience.
“He was very good at demonstrating his power over players and anyone he felt would threaten his voice, he would silence. That included sending staff over to players houses unannounced to ‘check-in’ on them, berating healthy scratches after losses; blaming them for the poor performance on the ice. Using injuries against players. Making true freshmen make a road trip and dress in warm-ups just to healthy scratch them. Hiring football coaches to pin on certain players during summer workouts to ‘motivate.’ Him knowing verbatim what has been said between players, team doctors and external doctors and surgeons private conversations and using that against them.”
Sova and I also had a conversation about a wrist injury he had during his Tech tenure. He wasn’t permitted to get it inspected by a doctor, but eventually his agent had him pay a visit to the Mayo Clinic. The medical professionals there confirmed that he should have gotten surgery right away. He had 3 separate surgeries to correct the issue, then played from January of his junior year to the end of his senior year with a cast on his wrist. Sova was never permitted a medical red shirt.
A player that wishes to remain anonymous offered a particularly scathing recounting of his time with Pearson.
“Whenever you voiced your opinion he took it as his incompetence and tried to find a way to deal with it. [I] was accused of taking recreational drugs which altered my attitude and performance and was ‘randomly’ drug tested several times after the fact… I felt like I was being harassed. Throughout training if we didn’t meet a certain score on a fitness test and made everyone show up at 6 am to make sure a certain person, and that only one person, passed that test. Some people are built with different abilities, but this was one of the best players I had the chance to play with. Then you have weigh-ins and stuff where players were doing laxatives and such to drop weight to be considered into the lineup. Exit interviews after senior year, you hope your coach has your back and can reach out to whoever to see if you can at least tryout post college to play and all Mel did was say ‘well I wish you the best of luck.'”
This player further substantiated Sova’s claim that Pearson would do regular drive-bys of player homes, despite the fact that he and the other players he resided with carried AB-BC averages as students and had no other known issues.
David Johnstone (2011-2015) echoes these sentiments. When asked about how he would describe the locker room culture at Michigan Tech under Pearson, Johnstone said it was “Toxic, manipulative, [and] narcissistic.” Additionally, he also alleges that out the door, Pearson gave absolutely no help to his professional prospects as he embarked on his post-Tech career.
Another anonymous player alleged that Pearson “was the worst coach and hockey person I’ve come across.” He offered similar accounts of playing favorites, failing to advocate for him once his Tech career came to a close and manipulation. However, the story of his that I would like to highlight regarded something more serious. This player echoed Sova’s experience of Pearson’s apparent disregard for physical health after an injury.
“When I was at Tech I suffered a back injury. He [Pearson] wouldn’t let me get an MRI on my back for a whole season. I tried rehabbing and doing everything the doctors and training staff told me, but nothing was getting better. [Pearson] still wouldn’t let me get an MRI. I’m not sure how he had so much control over that, but that is what I was told by the team staff. I had to come back to Canada in the summer to find out I had two herniated discs in my back. Once that happened, the following fall semester I finally got surgery in Marquette. I had to arrange my own ride to and from the hospital there. I had to get a teammate to drive me and drive me back. I didn’t hear from Mel till about 3 weeks later after I could finally walk and go to the arena.”
When asked to speak on any stories of Pearson he might be comfortable sharing, this player offered this account of what happened shortly after two of his fellow Huskies signed professional contracts.
“During summer session, we had a team meeting after Jujhar [Khaira] and [Pheonix] Copley signed their NHL deals. Mel came in pissed off that those two decided to leave. He told us they were making [a] huge mistake and that we should feel betrayed because they chose to chase the money instead of our team. I remember looking around after that meeting and everyone was stunned that he came in and said that after those two players earned that contract after the seasons they had there. [It] was absolutely mind blowing. I vowed to never be anything like him when I started coaching…”
What the stories of all of these players with negative experiences have in common is that their interpretation of Pearson’s personal character. He seemed to be willing to do anything to put himself ahead, even if that meant stepping on other people including his own players. He pretty clearly disregarded some major player health problems on more than one occasion. It is also extremely concerning that he appeared to be that upset about players leaving for the NHL, when that is typically seen as the mark of a good coach and the hallmark of a good program. Once arriving at Michigan, it certainly seems as though his tone changed about the prospect of players leaving college early to begin professional careers. However, in light of evidence that Pearson actively tried to sway teams away from picking up former Michigan goaltender Strauss Mann, perhaps not. Additionally, this seems to substantiate the claim that, at least to some extent, there was some sort of toxicity in Pearson’s behavior to players during his tenure at Michigan Tech.
Former players seem to be split almost down the middle as to whether their overall impressions of Pearson were positive or negative. Whether you came into this article with a pro- or anti-Pearson stance, I’m doubtful these player perspectives did a lot to sway your own perspective. With that said, I think both sides, the positive and the negative, deserve some further reflection from fans.
How the fans feel about a coach is one thing, but how they act as an advocate for the players they guide is another. The fact that many former players have gone on to at least modest success isn’t an accident. Pearson up to that point in his career was a proven winner at every level in which he played or coach. The leap that Michigan Tech took in recalling Pearson back to Houghton to right the ship was not just understandable, it was calculated. With all the evidence our athletic department had at hand, bringing Pearson to Houghton was a no-brainer decision. Moreover, it paid dividends, as anybody in attendance for the 2012 GLI Championship, 2016 MacNaughton Cup presentation, or the 2017 WCHA Championship would be able to tell you.
However, some of the concerns that were raised by players here are reason for some concern for things behind closed doors. Manipulation, playing favorites, vilifying players that moved on to the pros, and having what sounds like a concerning amount of control over the medical treatment of players, are all allegations that shouldn’t sit well with Michigan Tech hockey fans. Young men come from all over North America, sometimes the world, to come to Houghton for a shot to take the ice for the Huskies. If you get to campus and you’re feeling intimidated, vilified and mistrusted by the person you’re hoping to be your biggest advocate, that creates a huge cultural problem.
At the end of the day, Mel Pearson isn’t all good and he isn’t all evil. In the “choose your own adventure” book of life, Pearson selected many choices that didn’t lead to positive chapters. As cliche as it is, his own actions eventually caught up to him. While nothing detailed in the Michigan investigation nor in my own investigation of player accounts constitutes criminal activity, it seems as though Pearson’s ultimate firing from the University of Michigan was a more than justified action. Perhaps, his Michigan Tech tenure lasted longer than it should have as well.
Special thanks to every player that contributed their stories, especially Daniel Sova who assisted in helping me find players that were willing to speak both positively and negatively on their experiences. Also thanks to Sean Brick, Alex Slepak, Nick Holmes and Mike Anleitner for helping to ensure this piece was as good as it could possibly be.