Feb. 9, 2009
By Larry Watts
Experience does not always translate into victories.
Just ask Chris Summers, a junior on the University of Michigan men's hockey team.
Two years ago, the Wolverines carried seven seniors on their roster, several of which are now playing in the professional ranks. But Michigan never climbed higher than No. 5 nationally and was eliminated in the first round of the regional playoffs, ending the season with a disappointing 26-14-1 record.
"We had by far the best talent of any other NCAA team, but we weren't a team," Summers says of his freshman campaign. "We just never came together the way we should have."
That experience turned out to be a great teaching tool for last season, when the Wolverines only had three seniors. But they still managed to grab the nation's top ranking and win the Central Collegiate Hockey Association title before getting upset by No. 5 Notre Dame in the Frozen Four and ending their season at 33-6-4.
"I love the team stuff," Summers says. "That was much better than having a bunch of superstars. The way we came together, that was the best team I have ever been on."
Summers is hoping last year's success will rub off on this year's squad, which is very similar to the one that took the ice in the 2007-08 campaign. Currently ranked fourth in the nation, this year's edition only carries five seniors on the roster.
Summers has played every position on the ice for the Wolverines with the exception of goalie. "I don't think you'll ever find me in front of the net," he says with a laugh. "Those guys are the weird ones on the team. Why anyone would want to stand in front of a puck going 90 mph is beyond me. Those things (pucks) hurt."
Coming into this year, the 6-foot-2, 195-pounder had been selected as one of the team's assistant captains. But an early season knee injury to senior captain Mark Mitera quickly found Summers wearing the "C" on his sweater.
"I spent all summer preparing to be an assistant captain and suddenly I'm put in a role I wasn't expecting," he says. "I was comfortable with just trying to set an example for the younger players on and off the ice, making sure people responded in the right way. I figured if I do things right, the others would just follow my footsteps.
"Now I'm the one who has to go talk to the referees and I hate talking to referees. I've calmed down, but I just don't like the idea of those referees yelling at me. I approached one ref and I thought he was going to fight me. I guess he thought every captain who comes up to him just wants to start complaining."
Summers started out the season playing forward, but injuries have now forced the junior back to playing defense.
"I had the experience and I'm a high energy guy, but our defensive line started getting hit by injuries and I moved back," he says. "As long as I'm playing and helping, I'm happy."
He has already hit a career high in points (15) with the season just at the halfway point, but that is not a statistic he is concerned about. He gauges his contributions by the plus/minus category.
"To tell you the truth, I don't even know how many goals I have scored this year," he says. "I'm just happy if our team scores more goals than we give up when I'm on the ice. My job is to keep the puck out of the net and if I'm getting more plusses, then I'm doing my job."
The thought of playing college hockey never entered Summers' mind until he was 15. That was when one of his Midget Major coaches told him the University of Michigan wanted him to come in and talk.
"So my parents and I stopped by one day and they asked me if I wanted to be a Michigan Man," he says. "My parents' jaws hit the floor. But I didn't know what this meant. I was 15 years old and they were asking me for an oral commitment.
"That's how competitive recruiting has become. The U.S. schools are tired of losing players to the Junior ranks in Canada and they're going after players at a very early age now. I just wrote a paper in one of my classes about how ridiculous the recruiting in hockey has gotten."
Just after his senior year of high school, Summers was a first round draftee of the Phoenix Coyotes. However, he elected to honor his Michigan commitment while still remaining property of the Coyotes until June 1 of his senior year.
"If I wait until after June 1 (2010), then I will have to re-enter the draft," he says. "But I'm trying not to think about that stuff right now, it's out of my league. The paperwork and everything that goes along with it is not something I care to deal with at this time.
"I have a very good relationship with the people in Phoenix, it's a first-class organization. I hear stories about how other clubs are pushing players to leave school early, but Phoenix has been great with me. They give me space and if either one of us have questions, we are free to contact each other. They have a lot of respect for what I am doing and I have a lot of respect for them in return."
Summers has already built up quite a resume. He played with Team USA at the 2008 World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic, participated in the 20007 USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp, played on the gold medal squad at the 2006 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Sweden, participated in the 2005 Four Nations Tournament in Finland and the 2006 Five Nations Tournament in Russia, won the gold with the U.S. Under-18 team at the 2004 Four Nations Tournament in Rochester, N.Y. and competed in the 2005 World Under-17 Challenge in Alberta.
"My dad kind of put things in perspective for me when he told me I've already been to more countries than he's traveled to in his lifetime," Summers says. "You really don't think about it at the time because all of your teammates are going through the same experiences, but I've really learned to appreciate it now."
Whatever happens after Michigan, where he is earning a liberal arts degree with a major in psychology, Summers says he has already learned to appreciate his experience.
"Here I am getting a top-flight education at the No. 1 or 2 public school in the nation while playing hockey, and getting it all paid for," he says. "This is a real honor, so whatever happens after this is gravy. If pro hockey doesn't work out for me, I've still got that degree in my back pocket. There's a little more going on in the world than playing in the NHL for the rest of your life."