Ahead of Frozen Four, Michigan finds inspiration in men’s basketball team’s run to final

Defenseman Nicholas Boka practices Wednesday at the Xcel Energy Center (photo: Melissa Wade).

ST. PAUL, Minn. — “At Michigan, it’s football first, basketball second, and hockey third,” notes one Michigan hockey follower on the eve of the Wolverines’ Frozen Four semifinal game against Notre Dame.

And with Michigan basketball coming off a trip to the NCAA championship game (albeit one that resulted in a blowout loss), the hockey team won’t be changing that pecking order. Michigan hockey has already earned nine NCAA titles, more than any other school. A 10th won’t change the fact that the basketball team’s loss to Villanova drew 16 million TV viewers, deemed a ratings disaster, while the high-water mark for hockey over the last 10 years was 717,000 in 2014.

Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean the Wolverines hockey team casts envious, third-banana eyes toward their hoop brethren. Instead, they find inspiration.

“Ann Arbor was pretty crazy and we all got together as a team and watched it,” Tony Calderone says. “There are a lot of similarities [in the teams]. They were underdogs in that tournament and overcame.”

As has the hockey team.

“Seeing the stuff that they did, being unranked in January and then kind of working their way up, was very similar to us,” Hayden Lavigne adds. “[It] showed us we can do the same thing.

“They made it to the finals. That’s our goal right now, just one [game] at a time. And the atmosphere that they brought to Ann Arbor, and the energy that they brought, has translated onto us. It’s a good vibe.

“I’ve had a lot of people after we won regionals — people in class that I don’t even know — come up and congratulate me and say good luck the rest of the way.

“It’s nice to know that you have that support behind you. Whether or not you know them, they’re rooting for you, for the logo and because of who we represent.”

Michigan hockey coach Mel Pearson views the prominence of the Wolverines in the two “big money sports” as an advantage rather than cause for jealousy.

“That only adds to our recruiting,” he says. “That block M, wherever you see it on television, whether it’s the basketball team and the recognition they give to our school [or elsewhere], it just enhances our recruiting.”

Pearson, who in over two decades as a Michigan assistant coach got to know basketball coach John Beilein quite well, still considers him a resource.

“We talk about a lot of things,” Pearson says. “It’s a different sport, but there’s a lot of similarities [in] managing the team: days off, giving them rest, how long are you going to practice, strength and conditioning, all those things.”

So there’s a bond between the Michigan teams, not jealousy-fueled friction.

“We want to win the national championship whether we’re the third-biggest team on campus or the last-biggest team,” Calderone says. “It would be extremely special to be, I guess, the big guys on campus, but we wanted Michigan basketball to win, and we want to see success in all Michigan sports.”