College hockey: Wisconsin star forward, Park Ridge native Michael Mersch motivated by late father

<p>Minnesota goalie Adam Wilcox, left, watches the shot by Wisconsin forward Michael Mersch (25) sail wide of the net during the first period of a college hockey game at Chicago's Soldier Field, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)</p>

Minnesota goalie Adam Wilcox, left, watches the shot by Wisconsin forward Michael Mersch (25) sail wide of the net during the first period of a college hockey game at Chicago's Soldier Field, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Wisconsin men’s hockey coach Mike Eaves said Michael Mersch plays the game with his dad always on his mind.

Mersch, a standout senior forward with the Badgers, said he learned the game from his dad, a former professional hockey player. When Mersch was in second grade, his father, also named Michael Mersch, died of cancer.

“Yes, we’ve spoken about his dad, and I think he hears the voice of him in the back of his head,” Eaves said. “It’s a point of motivation for him. He wants to make his dad proud.”

The younger Mersch rose from a youth player in Park Ridge to a top-ranked junior in the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., and now he’s one of the best college players in the country.

Mersch is a finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, the hockey equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. The field will be narrowed to the top 10 on March 20 and then winnowed to the final three on April 2. The winner will be announced April 11.

Through Sunday, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound left-hander leads all Big Ten players with 20 goals in 32 games and he is tied for fourth with 31 points. His nine goals on power plays also are the most among conference players.

“It was exciting to learn I was nominated for this award,” said Mersch, who would be the first Chicago-area born player to win the honor and the second from the Badgers. “It’s always an honor to be recognized for something like this. But it’s a reflection of your team. Individual success comes from that.”

Mersch recalled a lesson he learned early on from his dad that has remained with him to this day.

“I was probably 5 or 6 [years old], and I won MVP of some tournament,” Mersch said. “My dad made me stand up in the locker room and thank my teammates.”

Mersch said that right now he’s only focused on helping the Badgers (21-9-2 overall, 12-5-1 Big Ten) close out the season on a strong note. The regular season wraps up this weekend with games at Michigan State on Friday and Saturday, and the Big Ten tournament starts March 20 in St. Paul, Minn.

Once the college season ends, Mersch said he plans to turn pro. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 2011, and the organization owns his rights until 30 days after Mersch leaves college.

“He’s got the size and some of the skill sets you need, but nobody is ever a shoe-in for the next level,” Eaves said. “Michael will have to prove that he has that extra gear in the gear box, but he has things going for him, like his dedication to the sport, that will give him a chance.”

Should he enter the professional ranks, Mersch will be following in his father’s path. The elder Mersch spent five seasons in the minor leagues after playing three seasons of Division I hockey at Illinois-Chicago.

“I will always have a special bond with my father because of hockey,” Mersch said. “It’s a way I can keep him close.”

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