Growth is a process. Whether it’s height, the honing of physical skills or a mindset, development isn’t something that happens all in one night. Some waiting is necessary, and in the case of the latter two, hard work is the key component. Just ask Michael Mersch.
The senior on the Wisconsin men’s hockey team came in a wide-eyed freshman who was young in hockey terms. Not spending any time at the junior level, where most players spend a few years, left his abilities still quite raw.
“I remember his freshman year, he was 17 or 18 coming in, and we always called him Bambi,” senior teammate Mark Zengerle said. “Somebody would bump into him and he would just fall over. He looked like a young deer out there.”
But since the day Mersch first walked into the Badger hockey program, he has been hard at work to gain a firm footing, refining his skating ability and other skills.
As the leading scorer in Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves’ coaching tenure with 64 career goals and counting, it’s clear that work has certainly paid dividends for Mersch, who has never missed a single game in his career.
“It’s been a work in progress. I’ve developed each year and gotten a little bit better, so it’s been a great experience. I think that’s the best way to describe my game. It’s developing and it keeps on getting better,” Mersch said.
Mersch’s start in hockey and inspiration for the sport came from another Michael, his late father. The elder Michael Mersch also played Division I hockey, spending his time with the University of Illinois-Chicago before the school disbanded the sport in favor of basketball.
After his playing days were over, the older Michael lit a fire of passion under the younger Michael for the game. Although he passed away when Mersch was in second grade, a bond still exists, connecting the two by way of the game they shared.
“I’ve been passing it on to my little brother and he’s growing up right now playing. [My dad is] probably the biggest role model for me, so it’s something that I’ll always be appreciative of. I’ll always have that special bond of hockey with him,” Mersch said.
Growing up, Mersch played a myriad of sports, including basketball, baseball and football, but when he began playing with the U.S. National Development Program in 2008, his focus turned solely to hockey.
With playing for a top-tier program, Mersch, despite some weakness with skating, was still a high recruit when he came to Wisconsin for his first year at 18.
In his first season as a Badger, Mersch blazed the way for all freshmen with his eight goals, contributing 11 assists along the way as well.
It was a good start but not something he was content with. To go from leading scorer of a class to the leading scorer on the team and in the league, he would have to keep pushing his level of play, which is exactly what he has done, something that has left an impression on his teammates, senior winger Tyler Barnes included.
“He’s an everyday guy that’s there putting in the work,” Barnes said.
Over the course of almost four seasons, Mersch has earned a reputation as a hard worker along with the reputation of a less glamorous endeavor: the garbage goal scorer. Not only did he earn the Bambi nomenclature, but he was also recognized by his teammates as the “dump truck,” the nickname of a former NHL player who had a knack for the garbage goals.
This season Mersch has proven he can score the pretty goal, too, which has included the NCAA play of the week with his highlight reel goal at Michigan Feb. 1.
As Zengerle noted, it takes a certain skill set to score the gritty goals, although it may get Mersch ribbed now and again.
“They’re all probably going to be pretty ugly but I don’t mind it,” Mersch said.
But his growth hasn’t been limited to what has taken place on the ice. As one of nine seniors, Mersch has found a leadership role for the Badgers by setting an example for the younger players.
Although he may not wear one of the captain emblems on his jersey, that’s not stopping Mersch from contributing with his voice, his play or even a joke, a process that’s taken just as much learning on his part.
“I took a lot of time to figure out just how to bring energy to the rink every day, whether it’s putting a smile on one of your teammate’s faces or telling them that they had a good practice—even sometimes if you weren’t watching them the entire practice but you saw something little that they did that you liked. Just bringing energy to every guy and learning how to come to practice every day and work hard but have fun with it,” Mersch said.
With all the hard work Mersch has put in, the numbers have been there to back up his play. He led the WCHA in goals last year with his 23 and he leads the Big Ten in goals right now with 19. In the past three years he has led the team in power play goals as well, something no one has ever done in Badger history and a testament to his hard-nosed style in front of the net.
Keeping those statistics in mind and his status as the 114th pick in the 2011 entry draft, Mersch has made himself a qualified candidate to make it in the pro ranks.
But for now, he’s focusing on what the all his hard work and development has been geared toward: success with the Badgers.
“I’m focused on this team. I have been the past four years and this is my priority along with every other guy on this team. Obviously the NHL is everybody’s ultimate goal but right now we have to focus on this team. We got a whole summer to figure it out, so there’s no rush for right now,” Mersch said.
Eaves said Mersch has strong characteristics that could lead him to a possible career in the NHL, including his size and his nose for the back of the net.
However, there are no guarantees when it comes to making it at the professional ranks and only time will tell what will happen. But the work ethic Mersch has built with Wisconsin can only help him going forward this season and into the rest of his career.
“He wants to win here,” Eaves. “He realizes that winning here is going to help him lily pad to the next level.
“Because of that focus and dedication and all that those words that we like to use, he’s earned the improvement. It’s come through hard work.”