Mel Pearson out as Michigan hockey coach amid allegations

Mel Pearson’s tenure as University of Michigan’s hockey coach is over after five seasons.

Michigan relieved the 63-year-old of his position Friday after a report surfaced Tuesday detailing multiple allegations against Pearson and his program.

The allegations in the report, which was obtained by MLive/The Ann Arbor News Tuesday, include:

  • Pearson “instructing students to lie on their COVID-19 tracing forms” ahead of the 2021 NCAA Tournament opener.
  • Pearson and director of hockey operations Rick Bancroft, who retired from UM in June, discriminating against female staffers and “creating a toxic work environment for female support staff.”
  • Pearson retaliating against a student athlete for “raising concerns” about the hockey team’s culture.
  • Bancroft knowing about sexual misconduct committed by late UM athletic Dr. Robert Anderson.

“It has been determined that Mel Pearson will not return as our ice coach,” the Michigan athletic director said in a news release. “This decision has been weighed heavily and for some time. We welcomed an independent third-party review into the climate and culture of our program before furthering our assessment in lockstep with campus leadership.

“Our student-athletes having a positive and meaningful experience is of paramount importance, and a clear expectation within our department is that all employees and staff are valued and supported. I deeply appreciate and value the many individuals who came forward throughout this review. Today’s announcement reflects the seriousness with what we’ve heard and the values ​​we hold dear at Michigan.”

The investigation, conducted by Washington, DC-based law firm WilmerHale, determined that the “issues facing the hockey program require attention” and “despite prior efforts to assess and respond to allegations regarding the culture of the program, additional work remains to be done ,” according to the report.

Specifically, the university should review whether (Pearson’s) conduct violates other university policies, including but not limited to Standard Practice Guide 601.90, Protection from Retaliation. In addition, the athletic department should take steps to address a number of issues discussed in this report, including (1) the mistreatment of female staff members by Mr. Bancroft; (2) (Pearson’s) inability or unwillingness to hold Mr. Bancroft accountable for his conduct; (3) pervasive fears among both student athletes and staff members of retaliation by (Pearson) for raising issues; and (4) inconsistencies in (Pearson’s) recollection, perception, and/or characterization of key incidents and issues as compared with other participants,” according to the report.

Pearson had been operating as head coach without a contract since his five-year deal expired May 1, but he was still handling all of his coaching duties and getting paid as an at-will employee, Manuel said following a June 17 board of regents meeting .

The investigation was launched in October 2021, when former Wolverines goalie and volunteer assistant Steve Shields filed a complaint with UM’s Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office, alleging that Pearson retaliated against him by firing him for reporting these allegations. While the investigators did not determine that Shields was retaliated against, they raised multiple concerns about the program related to Shields’ complaint, most notably the treatment of former Michigan goalie Strauss Mann, an All-American and 2020-21 team captain who left after his junior season to play professionally in Sweden.

In the report, it’s alleged Pearson forced Mann to leave the program for serving as the “ringleader” of players who expressed concerns that could get him fired.

“These accounts reveal a widespread assumption within the hockey program that (Pearson) linked (Shields) to issues surrounding the treatment of student athletes and in particular (Pearson’s) conflict with Mr. Mann,” the report states. “And, as noted above, (Pearson) appeared to view the concerns being raised by Mr. Mann as a serious threat to his position as head coach.

“At the very least, the evidence is clear that Mr. Mann believed that his status with the hockey program was in serious jeopardy because of friction with (Pearson).”

During multiple portions of the report, investigators wrote that they determined Pearson was “not credible” in his answers to their questions. Although Wilmer-Hale’s investigation was completed in early May, UM spokespeople, as recently as Tuesday, said Pearson was still the program’s coach.

On June 17, Manuel was asked if he expected Pearson to be the head coach for the 2022-23 season and replied, “He’s our hockey coach, and I anticipate him being our hockey coach.”

Multiple attempts by MLive to reach Pearson for comment were unsuccessful. After the report was published Tuesday, a UM spokesperson told MLive that Manuel had “no comment.”

On the ice, Pearson’s teams were largely successful. Not including 2020, when the NCAA Tournament was canceled because of COVID-19, Michigan reached the Frozen Four twice, including last year.

The Wolverines finished 31-10-1 – their first 30-win season since 2008 – won the Big Ten Tournament and advanced two rounds in the NCAA Tournament before an overtime loss to eventual champion Denver in a national semifinal.

During Pearson’s tenure, Michigan has produced 12 first-round NHL draft picks. Last year’s team featured an NCAA-record seven on the roster, including four top-five selections in Owen Power, Matty Beniers, Luke Hughes and Kent Johnson.

The Wolverines also signed another talented freshman class this year, including three top-50 draft picks, and began the regular season Oct. 7. Assistant coaches Bill Muckalt and Brandon Naurato are entering year two of three-year contracts they signed before the 2021-22 season.

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