| The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Dylan Larkin is laughing alongside Luke Glendening.
The Detroit Red Wings teammates and Michigan alum sit together in a video on the Jumbotron of Ann Arbor’s Yost Ice Arena during the first under-10 minute timeout of every Wolverines hockey game.
Below them, three Michigan freshmen ranked in the top-7 of Elite Prospects’ big board for the 2021 NHL Draft are huddled at the home bench. The atmosphere does not match what the recently named Red Wings captain is saying.
“When I went to Michigan State it was just dead,” Larkin says in the video boasting Michigan’s student section, Children of Yost, a rabid group that recently bullied its way into a posthumous honorable mention in NCAA.com’s rankings of the top nine student sections in the country.
“I went to Michigan, and five minutes into the game I went, ‘Dad, I’m coming here.’”
The atmosphere at Yost — a conspicuous 98-year-old brick building with tall glass windows along State Street that looks more like a hockey church than a hockey rink, and doubles down on that theme inside — is a major ingredient in the Michigan hockey recruiting recipe.
The trio of 18-year-old top-pick hopefuls, defenseman Owen Power, winger Kent Johnson and center Matthew Beniers, know they’re missing out on that experience.
“My first week, I was pinching myself just skating in this rink,” Johnson said last week. “Obviously it’s different without fans, but it’s such a beautiful rink.”
By and large, though, that’s about the only thing they’re missing out on — or at least the only thing they acknowledge.
In the upside-down world of 2020 and beyond, all three are acutely aware of the sacrifices that have been made on a global scale to slow the COVID-19 pandemic, how minor their sacrifice seems in comparison, and how lucky they are to play for one of the few teams in North America that was ready to roll in November.
“I think everyone on the team is just grateful that we have the opportunity to play,” Power said. “We just haven’t taken a day for granted and am just happy to be here.”
One has to marvel at the idea that Power, Johnson and Beniers have led a freshman class that runs nine deep and helped drive the Wolverines to a No. 7 ranking, all while competing with each other for a legitimate chance to go first-overall, and virtually nobody is there to see it in-person.
One person who does, from Box A of Yost’s fourth-level Champion’s Club, popcorn in hand, is Red Berenson. The 81-year-old Michigan Alum (1959-62) coached the Wolverines for 33 years, winning two national titles and boasting some pretty great recruiting classes himself before retiring in 2017.
“I just think they’re willing to do whatever it takes,” Berenson said of this year’s group during the first intermission of Sunday’s loss to Wisconsin. “They’ve got such a good attitude, they’re not second-guessing anything. They’re glad they came to Michigan, they’re glad they’re playing college hockey, and they’re making the most out of it.”
A night before Berenson made these comments, Michigan returned from a break of over three weeks to topple Wisconsin, who’d stolen the Wolverines’ No. 7 ranking during its hiatus, by a score of 5-1.
Beniers nabbed the winning goal that night after Johnson smacked a puck out of the air to send him on the rush. He beat Badger goaltender Robbie Beydoun from the left faceoff dot at 3:20 in the second to earn a 13th point in his 13th game of the season.
“Everything just seems like it’s normal to them in this crazy year. ‘Hey, we got a two-week pause,’ … ‘OK, well, we don’t know any different. We’ll just do what we do and make the most of it,’” Pearson said, starting to laugh. “They just never cease to surprise me with how they act, or carry themselves, how they play. … They just don’t know any different, and that’s how they are.”
Power, No. 1 on Bob McKenzie’s preseason draft power rankings, committed to Michigan even before entering the USHL as a 15-year-old, even though the plan was for him to come a year later.
“He came down for camp, and (former Steel coach) Greg Moore and I were like, ‘Holy crap. This kid’s unbelievable,’” Steel general manager Ryan Hardy said. “We tried to convince him and his dad to stay, but we needed mom’s approval. So me and Greg went up to Toronto, we met with them all, and eventually agreed to let him come down.”
The 6-foot-5, 214-pound defenseman from Mississauga, Ontario turned 16 that December, setting a record for most goals scored by a 16-year-old defenseman (11) and finishing with the second-most points (25) by a 16-year-old in USHL history.
“Sometimes with kids that age you have to hold their hand,” current Steel coach Brock Sheahan said. “We never had to do any of that. We had a schedule that was set, he got to it, did his work, did all that in order to make sure he got the most out of his time.”
A diligence in work ethic intertwines all of Michigan’s upcoming draftees, and while that isn’t unusual for top prospects, it is out of the ordinary for three of them to do it in a college locker room.
“I think it definitely pushes us,” Power said. “I think we’re all at the rink pretty much all the time. If one of us goes and shoots pucks, a lot of time the other two follow. If one of us is in the gym, the other two follow also.”
The burning question of Power’s young career to this point has been whether he can sustain lofty expectations that have been thrust upon him. Hardy and Sheahan see no reason why he won’t.
“If he does go No. 1, they made the right decision,” Sheahan said.
Johnson, meanwhile, has fought for something a little different. The show-stopping playmaker led the British Columbia Hockey League in scoring a season ago with 101 points in 52 games. The 6-foot-1 winger possesses a junior highlight reel that includes two ‘Michigan move’ goals last season.
“I feel like people always love to say, ‘Maybe you won’t be able to do that at the next level,’ or whatever, when you play my style,” Johnson said.
Less than a month into the season, one of Johnson’s goals landed him the No. 2 spot in a December edition of SportsCenter Top 10. He’s tied with 2020 second-rounder Thomas Bordeleau (San Jose Sharks) for the team lead with 18 points, posting six goals and 12 assists in 16 games entering Friday.
None of this surprises Dustin Korlak, Johnson’s BCHL coach with the Trail Smoke Eaters.
“When Kent came in, you could tell that he was much more advanced than the normal 16-, 17-, even 18-year-old kid,” Korlak said. “He was just an unbelievable person to be around, and the way he worked off the ice in the gym to get stronger and better, the way he worked on the ice, his practice habits only drove other players … to push them to his level.”
Both Power and Johnson made their decisions to play at Michigan long before they knew how fortunate it would be to play their 2021 season outside of the Canadian major-junior leagues, most of which are still not playing games as February nears close.
The ability to embrace the unexpected on an individual level has defined Michigan’s season, but the ability to do the same on a team level also has a lot to do with it.
In July, Beniers wasn’t even in the fold. Originally a Harvard commit, the Hingham, Massachusetts native transferred to Michigan in August after the Ivy League announced it would be canceling all fall and winter sports.
“I never let myself actually think he was going to come,” said Michigan assistant Kris Mayotte, who “followed that kid around everywhere” for three years as a recruiting specialist on Nate Leaman’s staff at Providence. Mayotte left for Michigan in 2019 and went after Beniers again in 2020, but thought the prized center was a lock to wind up at Boston College.
“He calls me, and obviously, my heart drops,” Mayotte said. “He’s like, ‘Hey coach, thank you for everything, I love everything about Michigan, thank you for recruiting me, but I grew up in Boston, and … Go blue. I’m coming.’”
Months later, Beniers would help Team USA — coached by Leaman — upset arguably the greatest Canadian team ever in the gold medal game at the World Junior Championships in Edmonton.
“Whenever we’d be in a jam, he’d get the puck and get you out of that jam,” Leaman said. “His motor is what makes him elite.”
Beniers now centers a line with Johnson at Michigan. Before a faceoff, it’s common to see Johnson go communicate with Beniers, then go to Power to fill him in on the plan.
“It’s so much fun to play with these guys,” Johnson said. “We’re all rooting for each other as well. I’d be super happy if they go one and two, and obviously it’d be ideal if we went one, two and three, but we don’t have to much control over that.”
Michigan’s regular season comes to a close on March 10 vs. Michigan State, and soon after, there’s a chance that they’ll all depart for bigger and better things. But there’s also a legitimate possibility that the NHL delays its 2021 draft a year to give all prospects the chance to have a full season beforehand.
“I feel like we don’t stress the draft as much as people would think in your draft year,” Beniers said. “You almost try to not think about it because it just gets you a little off and thinking about more important things.”
Putting the future on hold and prolonging the unknown, in principle, is a less-than-ideal situation.
But Michigan’s freshmen have become comfortable in an uncomfortable world, and in appreciating the fortune of their situation, have a tough time acknowledging that there’s any reason to be uncomfortable at all.
Although they would like to play at least one game in front of the Children of Yost.
“We’d go to Michigan, and they packed it,” said Beniers, who played against Michigan with the NTDP. “It was one of the sickest games I’ve ever played in, so I hope I can get that feeling when I’m not being rooted against.”
“That’s definitely one thing.”
Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.
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