Part of the annual ritual that every collegiate team goes through is adapting to a group of players different from the previous year’s group. But when you have to adapt to and lead one of the top programs in the nation that features 15 freshmen, the task can be quite daunting. For the University of Michigan senior and team captain Kevin Porter it is a challenge that he welcomes. As the Northville, MI native explains, one of the biggest tests has been getting the team to play a full 60 minutes every game.
"With a young team, I think it’s getting the team focused for every period, not just every game. There’ve been some games where we came out and started out really well and then had a few lapses in the second and third periods. It’s been a little bit difficult, but getting everyone refocused for each period and playing 60 minutes each night is where we need to be. I think if we play 60 minutes and we’re focused for the whole game then we should be OK."
Going into the weekend Porter co-led the nation in goal scoring with eight and power play goals with five. His 11 points (eight goals, three assists) also leads the Wolverines.
Part of what makes Porter such a special player is his confident yet modest nature. He’s a player who not only understands how his team should play but also cares about each and every one of his teammates, whether it’s at the rink or away from it.
"Kevin cares about the right things. He cares about people doing the right things and he cares about how things are done," said Michigan head coach Red Berenson. "He’s concerned about the details of our program such as are we working hard or are we on time, and the things that I care about. He can think with the coaching staff and so he’s like a playing coach. He cares about the kids and everything that is going on because he knows they’re all important. He knows that it’s not just about him; it’s about all the things that make for a winning team."
Aside from leading a very young Wolverines team, Porter has also had to adjust to his new position, centering Michigan’s top line that also includes fellow senior and Coyotes prospect Chad Kolarik and freshman Max Pacioretty (MON). Up until this season, Porter had played almost exclusively on left wing during his collegiate career. While the move to center has taken some getting used to, Porter also sees new opportunities there as well.
"The transition wasn’t too hard. I think the hardest thing was getting used to skating up the middle instead of on the wing. I have more options now with the puck up the middle than I had just playing left wing."
One of the misconceptions about his offensive capabilities that Porter has been able to gradually dispel this season is the notion that his former centerman, T.J. Hensick (COL) was responsible for much of offensive production last season. Porter has thus far proven that he can not only put up the offensive numbers without Hensick, but is also not the one-dimensional player that some of have portrayed him to be.
An area that has begun to really emerge in Porter’s game, even in this early stage of the season, is his improved defensive game. As he continues to develop and progress as a player, Porter could eventually make his pro career out of being an outstanding two-way forward. It is that balance of tremendous offensive skill and defensive responsibility that helps to make him an invaluable cog in the high-powered Michigan Wolverines hockey machine. Though Porter feels that his defensive game is pretty solid, he’s not about to rest his laurels.
"I came in (this year) thinking that I’m going to have to be just as good defensively as I am offensively, especially with such a young team. I’d describe myself is a two-way player that can play against the other team’s top lines defensively, but also be able to put up some numbers. I can always get better defensively, so can my line. We had a rough start and we finally started to pick it up defensively."
For virtually every aspiring hockey player, conditioning and training has become a year-round regimen to not only stay in shape but to also address areas that need attention in preparation for the following season. As Porter explains, one of the areas that he focused on in his off-season workouts this past summer was improving his speed.
"I did more like pliametrics, running and explosive work to try and get my speed and quickness up. I started off using weights early in the summer to try and get my strength up. Then I did more pliametrics jumps, sprints and stuff like that later in the summer to get my speed up and lose a little bit of weight. I worked out probably three or four times a week. I didn’t skate as much during (most of) the summer but then towards the end of summer, I started skating four or five times a week."
This past off-season saw a number of collegians depart early for the professional ranks. Porter saw two of his own teammates in Andrew Cogliano and Jack Johnson leave to sign with the Edmonton Oilers and the Los Angeles Kings respectively. He also had the opportunity to leave early when the Phoenix Coyotes offered to sign him. However unlike his teammates, Porter chose to return for his final year at Michigan much to delight of his coaches, teammates and the Wolverines faithful. But Porter says that the decision to return to Ann Arbor was actually quite simple.
"There are so many pros and cons to leaving and coming back. Once I weighed all of those out, I just thought that it was the right decision to come back. I thought that I needed another year to grow as a player and as a person. To graduate was one of my goals coming into Michigan, so with all of those things, it was a no-brainer to come back and I didn’t have to think too hard about it, but I feel like I made the right decision."
"I think it was a good decision for Kevin. He had his chance to leave and I think he was pretty firm about coming back," added Berenson. "Kevin looked at his options here. He’s going to play the most of any player on our team game after game. He’ll gain a ton of confidence in his own leadership ability as well as being a year more mature and ready to be an NHL player."
One of the more interesting aspects of being a Phoenix Coyotes prospect for Porter is that his current linemate and fellow senior Chad Kolarik is also one and the possibility of being teammates and perhaps even linemates once again in Phoenix as pros is something that brings a smile to his face.
"We’ve played together for about the last five or six some years, so if we head down there together, I think that it’ll just help us out trying to make the team where other guys are there by themselves. We can help each other out and give each other confidence and stuff like that. So I think that’s just a positive that we both got drafted by the same NHL team and can help each other out in that way."
Upholding and carrying on a long, established tradition, particularly one that is as illustrious as that of the Michigan Wolverines, is something that virtually every collegiate player who slips on his respective team’s jersey takes great pride in and Porter is no different. For him, the opportunity is both a privilege and an honor. And to play for a legendary coach who has also donned the maize and blue, makes it even more special.
"To be able to go into the locker room for a game or even just for a practice and put on that jersey, you get that feeling in your stomach and it’s just amazing. I know that it’s great to play here and I’ve loved all of my years here so far and I’m going to miss it when I’m gone. This program has so much history and it’s such an incredible honor to be able to put that jersey on and be named the captain of this team.
[Berenson] is a great coach and he’s really intense, which is good. During practices he really gets into it. He even gets into some of the drills once in a while. That makes it fun. He’s a great guy to be around and obviously to learn a lot from. I can’t really think of just one lesson that he’s taught me because there’ve been so many since my three, almost four years of being here."
Porter lists Peter Forsberg and Mike Modano as the NHLers that have had the greatest influences on him. As far as collegiate players go, the best collegian he has ever played against is former Colorado College Tiger and current Boston Bruins defenseman Mark Stuart.
And as for playing on the road, which team’s barn does Porter feel is the most difficult? If you guessed Munn Ice Arena at Michigan State, you’d be wrong. In fact, the rink is not even that of a CCHA team.
"I’d have to say that toughest road rink to play in is North Dakota because they’re always a tough, hard-hitting team, and they always have great players. To go into their rink, it’s always a tough place to play."
As much as Porter has grown and accomplished thus far in his collegiate career, the best may be yet to come. His excellent start has already gotten many in the college hockey community pegging him as an early candidate for the Hobey Baker Award, and with the depth and talent that the Wolverines possess, the team could potentially go quite far in the post-season.
When Kevin Porter does leave the University of Michigan, what does he want to be best remembered for?
"I guess as a great, hard-working player and being a great person. Coming through this program, they expect you to be a great player and everyone here usually is, but you’re also there to grow as a person and get your degree from one of the greatest universities in the United States. I think I work hard every day, whether it’s in practices or in games. I come in and no matter if I don’t have my hands that day or my legs don’t feel that good, I’m still going to be working as hard as I can. So I’d like to just be remembered as a great player who works hard and a great person."
Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.