Heading into the season, it was no surprise that yet again, the University of Michigan Wolverines were going to be a force to be reckoned with. Utilizing a deep, diverse and gifted roster, the Wolverines have lived up to that reputation as they close in on another CCHA title.
What has been remarkable about the team that boasts a total of 14 quality players who have been drafted by NHL clubs, is the emergence of freshman forward Chad Kolarik.
But should we all be surprised?
Head Coach Red Berenson has always had a knack for bringing in talented youth and assimilating them within the system year after year. Looking back over the past two seasons, freshmen have led the hype around Yost Arena. Highly touted netminder Al Montoya (NYR) and Jeff Tambellini (LA) entered the program during the 2002-03 season. While Montoya went on to take on the nation between the pipes, it was Tambellini who would dazzle opposing goalies on his way to leading the Wolverines in scoring. Last season, it was T.J. Hensick (2005 eligible) who emerged as the top playmaker for Michigan, and like Tambellini, led the team in scoring as a rookie.
Freshman jitters all but gone
While the history of Wolverine talent is as deep as Berenson’s famed coaching career in Ann Arbor, he looks to prove that yet again, he still has an eye for superstars. As this season continues to wind itself down, it seems to be Kolarik’s turn to step up and solidify the distinction as top newcomer.
The state of Michigan has been Kolarik’s surrogate home for the past three seasons. Prior to joining the Wolverines, the Abington, Pennsylvania native spent the last two years in the U.S. NTDP which also calls Ann Arbor home. It was there that Kolarik started making waves in the higher scouting circles of the hockey community.
“I think it was a great decision to play for the program,” Kolarik reminisced about the choice he made three years ago. “It got me ready for the college level. Now I am playing against the older guys and it doesn’t feel like that much of a jump.”
Before the season started, the pressure began to mount and he wasn’t quite sure where he would fit in on the overly talented squad. He eagerly admitted that he was thought he was going to struggle at even cracking the lineup.
“There was definitely a lot of pressure,” he reflected. “I didn’t have that much of a great year last season. I kind of tailed off towards the end and I didn’t know what to expect when I got here. I didn’t know where coach’s confidence level was in me.”
And rightly so, it was another highly touted freshman and fellow Phoenix prospect, Kevin Porter, who was making an immediate impact with the Wolverines. As Porter would eventually play himself into a roster spot with Team USA for the 2005 WJC, it was actually Kolarik who really started to show the prowess many expected from the onset.
After months of building back his confidence, Kolarik the playmaker has emerged as Michigan’s top go-to guy on the power play. In doing so, has continued to add to the force that has kept Michigan among the tops in the CCHA and in Division I hockey all together.
In a series against Nebraska-Omaha, he earned 4 points (1 goal, 3 assists), all of which were on the man advantage. He would go onto be honored as the CCHA Rookie of Week for his series play, but he is convinced he needs to do better.
“It’s a great accomplishment, but it is only one weekend of play,” the crafty winger explained about the honor. “That was the first time I won that, so I know I have to be a lot more consistent.”
Kolarik’s line helped the Maize and Blue go on to destroy Notre Dame the following weekend. He added another four points (2 goals, 2 assists) as Michigan swept the series.
“We needed that,” Kolarik explained about dominating the Fighting Irish. “It was a big lift for our team. There’s only three more weeks in the season, so we have to win it outright to win first place in the conference. We really sent a message that weekend and we’ll more than likely play Notre Dame in the first round. I think we put up some good results.”
Not only has Kolarik spent the last three years in Ann Arbor but, he has also done it playing along with Porter. They both joined the U.S. NTDP during the 2002-03 season and have gone on to build their careers and their friendship.
“Kevin and I are friends going back to our days with the U.S. program,” Kolarik explained. “Now that were together all the time, it only makes things stronger between us.”
College life can be rough for many incoming freshman, but Kolarik likes having someone close like Porter, who is on the same path and understands the rigors of a student athlete’s life.
“It definitely helps me out,” Kolarik explained about his freshman experience with Porter. “We’re in a bunch of the same classes together, so we motivate each other when the other isn’t feeling that great. We encourage the other to get up, go to classes and get the work done. We always push each other, so it is good.”
The story of the two budding young star became even more entertaining well before the two could even step foot on the grounds of the University of Michigan. Over the summer, they were both selected by the Phoenix Coyotes in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. Porter went in the fourth round (119th overall) and Kolarik followed, getting selected in the seventh round (199th overall).
While the two continue to focus and motivate each other with the present hurdles in school and hockey, Kolarik finds the two building a friendship that can last for many years to come.
“It’s great because we can continue to push each other and tell each other when we’re doing something wrong,” he explained about working towards the NHL. “We both take constructive criticism from each other really well. He’s going to be a life long friend and it’s great having him alongside me. I’m sure he feels the same.”
Pride and prestige
There has always been a good relationship between USA Hockey and the University of Michigan. It’s obvious that the two programs house some of the nations top talent, but it is more them evident that the U.S. NTDP has become a great feeder system for the Wolverines. Out of a roster of 24 players, nine of them have skated with the U.S. NTDP, before joining the Wolverines.
Kolarik says he picked the school because of the great environment and its rich sports history.
“That is why I chose to come to Michigan,” said Kolarik. “There’s a lot of tradition and prestige here. The school is great and the quality of hockey is great. ”
No matter what the sport, having rivals like Michigan State and Ohio State has always seemed to sweeten the pot for recruits. The Wolverines home ice, the Yost Arena has been terrorizing opponents for years. It is considered by some the hardest arena to play at as a visitor in all of college hockey.
“It definitely helps to see your fans jacked-up as much as you have to be,” Kolarik explained about the strong student following. “It’s been great both on and off the ice.”
And backing up the school hockey reputation is head coach Berenson, who is in his 21st season with the Maize and Blue. Like all his players, he got Kolarik’s attention from the get go.
“Words can’t describe him at times,” the forward gushed about Berenson. “I mean, he’s unbelievable. He knows what he is talking about and he knows the game inside and out. He’s won a Stanley Cup, two national championships, been to the Regionals and to the Frozen Four a countless number of times. He’s been there from the start and he is such a great coach.”
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.