How Investigation into Michigan Hockey Program Could Impact the Blackhawks' Future

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Frank Nazar

How Investigation into Michigan Hockey Program Could Impact the Blackhawks’ Future

Chicago Blackhawks

On Tuesday morning, John U. Bacon — arguably the U. of Michigan insider — posted a lengthy response to a newly published report regarding allegations surrounding the Michigan men’s hockey program and head coach Mel Pearson.

Pearson, who has been the head coach in Ann Arbor for five years, has become an NHL prospect warehouse. Last year’s roster included top picks Owen Power, Matty Beniers, Kent Johnson, Brendan Brisson, and Luke Hughes. Their 2021 NHL Draft class was unprecedented; Power (1), Beniers (2), Hughes (4), and Johnson (5) were the first time one program produced four of the top five overall selections in an NHL draft.

But there has been a cloud of suspicion around the program, and the report released on Tuesday is damning.

From the Bacon article:

“It’s clear former trainer-turned-operations director Rick Bancroft bullied and harassed former secretary Lora Durkee, nutritionist Caroline Mandel, and communications director Kristy McNeil. Bancroft officially retired this spring.

The investigators raise the question of Pearson’s “inability or unwillingness to hold Mr. Bancroft accountable for his conduct.” In other words, Pearson was well aware of the abuse, or should have been, and did nothing.

The third issue, [Pearson] retaliating against the players, is not a crime, but goes to the core mission of a university, which is to develop, enrich, and support the students.”

Some on Twitter have already asked how Pearson can keep his job given the report, which could lead to a seismic shift in college hockey.

And the departure of Pearson could impact the short-term future of the Blackhawks.

Chicago’s top forward pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, center Frank Nazar (No. 13 overall), is headed to Michigan, where he will join the 14th overall pick (by Winnipeg), forward Rutger McGroarty.

There are some who believe Nazar may have been a one-and-done collegiate player. His speed, skill, and playmaking could easily make him a candidate to sign after the coming season. And, as we noted earlier this summer, the Blackhawks are among the few teams that haven’t signed their first-round picks from this past draft class.

If Pearson does indeed lose his job, or — potentially more significant — if there are penalties handed down on the program by the NCAA, the pressure to leave the program will undoubtedly increase for top players like Hughes (who is returning for another season), McGroarty and Nazar.

Blackhawks general manager Kyle Davidson has been very frank about the organization’s plan to allow players ample time to develop at the junior, college, and AHL levels before promoting them to the NHL. And a program that has successfully cultivated NHL-caliber talent the way Michigan has recently would be an ideal place for the Blackhawks to give a player like Nazar multiple seasons to mature on and off the ice.

We’ll keep an eye on this story as it develops, but it’s worth noting that Nazar — arguably the Blackhawks’ top forward prospect already — being impacted by this investigation is worthy of our attention.

Author: Tab Bamford

Tab is the Lead Blackhawks voice for BN. He is the author of two books about the Blackhawks, most recently "Chicago Blackhawks: An Illustrated Timeline" (Reedy Press, 2021). Find him on Twitter at @The1Tab