BECOMING A CATALYST
Through the end of February, Motte has netted the most goals in college hockey (29) and set a modern school record with a 12-game scoring streak from Dec. 30-Feb. 19, but says, simply, "There's not a whole lot to enjoy except when our team wins."
And about any possible MVP nods, which seem increasingly inevitable with every passing week: "We're not even thinking about it, and we don't talk about it too much."
To be fair, there's a lot of excitement -- on both a local and national scale -- over Motte and his linemates, J.T. Compher and Kyle Connor. Dubbed the "CCM Line," they're currently the most productive trio in college hockey and a vital part of the team's bid to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012. And after two solid seasons as a trustworthy top-nine guy who does a little bit of anything, Motte has emerged as a bona fide catalyst who does a lot of everything-including putting the puck in the net and talking to the media.
"He's one of our go-to players," noted Red Berenson, who's coached many a go-to type in his 32 years behind the Michigan bench, after his team picked up five of six points in their weekend series against Wisconsin in mid-February. "I mean, [his goal total is] pretty impressive for a guy who's rock-solid in our zone. He just continues to grow as a player and get better."
Senior Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman is surprised by all the goals, not because he considers Motte solely a grinder, but because of how rare it is in the scope of college hockey, even among the very best players. "I don't think even Jack Eichel hit 30 goals last year at Boston University; Johnny Gaudreau had 36 two years ago," he pointed out, naming the last two Hobey Baker winners. "It's very rare to have 30 goals in college hockey. Tyler's still got some games to go, so I think he's got a good chance to eclipse the 30 mark."
Bowman added that Motte's production this season is partly the result of increased opportunity after the departure of teammates like Detroit's rookie phenom, Dylan Larkin, while Motte attributes his success to his linemates and the overall strength of the team.
But a guy doesn't simply average a goal per game in the NCAA through sheer luck. Bowman characterizes Motte's game as "honest," meaning no cherry-picking at the blue line, nothing casual about his two-way commitment. Opposing coaches know him, if not by name then at least as "the guy who blocks all those shots." Director of Player Development Barry Smith refers to him as "fearless," a description that Motte finds acceptable.
"I try to play with a little bit of an edge, get to the dirty areas," he said. "Even though I'm considered an undersized guy, it's still a part of my game to get to the front of the net, create some space for my teammates, kill penalties and do the little things that I think make a difference for a team."
Over two games in Madison, it became clear that the little things do, in fact, accumulate into a rather impressive whole.
It was "White Out the Kohl Center" weekend, a yearly Wisconsin tradition that seeks to create a blizzard-like atmosphere, but with the Badgers in the middle of a dismal season, only the first few rows of the student section were filled up by the time warmups began on Friday, accompanied by a jaunty tune from the varsity band.
Consciously or not, Motte's warmup routine was a preview for the way he would play that weekend. While teammates took shots from the middle of the ice, he practiced one-timers from tight angles, posting up at the edges of the circles. Amidst a flurry of cross-ice passes being lobbed from player to player, Motte zig-zagged around the goal line, buzzing back and forth, getting a feel for the area where he'd ideally spend most of the game.
Motte is officially the shortest player listed on the Wolverines roster at 5 feet, 9 inches, a disparity that was made evident when he paused to chat with much taller teammates during warmups. But at 190 pounds, he's also "strong and stocky," as Bowman says, creating an eye-catching combination of fleetness and density that sends him hurtling across the ice like a small meteor on every shift.
It took Motte all of two shifts that Friday to show his affinity for playing low in the zone. Moments after his first backdoor attempt was stopped spectacularly by Wisconsin netminder Matt Jurusik and cleared, Motte completed a zone entry, passed across the blue line to Compher and streaked toward that same spot by the far post, where Compher's returning slap pass found him for a tap-in. Then, with Jurusik pulled late in the third period and Wisconsin swarming, Motte latched onto the puck in his own zone and cleared it to Connor for an empty-netter to cinch a dominant 4-1 Michigan victory.
The next night, the atmosphere at Kohl Center was more lively at the start of the game and so were the Badgers, who put pressure on Michigan early, only for the CCM Line to set the tone once again. Late in the first period, Motte and Compher took off on a shorthanded two-on-one rush, and Motte buried the puck with a marvelous backhand: top shelf, where mom keeps the peanut butter.
If Motte's two goals against Wisconsin are proof of his underrated offensive instincts, the rest of his game tape from that weekend provides a coherent snapshot of the player the Blackhawks chose with the 121st pick in the 2013 NHL Draft: hard-working, defensively responsible and tenacious in all three zones. He was especially Berenson's go-to guy on Saturday when Michigan took two penalties early in the third period with the score tied 3-3, and put another type of exclamation point on his last shorthanded shift of the night with a big shot block in the slot. Fearless, indeed.
"He's one of our hardest-working players, every game and practice," Berenson said after Michigan's 5-4 shootout win. "He's one of our best two-way players. He's a defensive stalwart who blocks more shots than anyone on our team, and now he's scoring goals better than anybody on our team. He continues to earn the coaches' trust, and he continues to do the job against the other team's best players night after night. The way he plays, he should have a letter. He's one of our leaders, there's no question about it."
The mood was somewhat tempered at the end of Saturday night, with some chagrin felt after losing a late lead and dropping a point in the standings. Still, it was another successful series for the CCM Line. Connor, likely the most offensively skilled member of the trio, is leading the NCAA in points as a freshman; Compher, a Northbrook, Ill., native, is hovering atop the national leaderboard for assists. Perhaps the only thing more impressive than the three of them individually is what they've been able to achieve together: Since being thrown together at the beginning of December, they've now accounted for 50 of the team's 89 goals, including five of eight that weekend against Wisconsin.
"The natural part of it is just those two guys being great players with great knowledge for the game, [and each of us] bringing something different to the table," Motte said. "As far as chemistry goes, we don't necessarily walk through X's and O's as a line, we just go out there and play hockey, and the pieces are falling together for us."
So it's not just some momentary magic -- everything Tyler Motte is accomplishing right now is born out of hard work, attention to detail and a determined streak a mile wide. Growing up in Michigan as the son of two former collegiate athletes, Tyler latched onto his older brother C.J.'s love of hockey, but it wasn't until five years ago, when he got the opportunity to try out for the U.S. National Team Development Program, that a vision of the future started to crystallize.
In Ann Arbor, Motte developed his game alongside the country's brightest young talent, including two other Blackhawks prospects in John Hayden and Anthony Louis as well as current linemate Compher. Already in the habit of exceeding expectations, his draft stock rose after he posted seven points in seven games at the 2013 U18 World Championship in Russia, finishing as the highest scorer for Team USA and earning a silver medal to cap off his time at the NTDP. Despite not being considered a top-tier goal-scorer, Motte has now lit the lamp in places ranging from Ann Arbor to Sochi, from Madison to Madison Square Garden.
"Getting recruited to places like Michigan, you realize that you could potentially make something of it," Motte said. "And getting drafted by Chicago was a huge step in the realization that I might be able to play professional hockey for hopefully quite a few years."
Under Berenson's watch, Michigan has historically been a place where players can bloom if they embrace the personal responsibilities of balancing hockey and school and use the resources the school gives them to get better every day. A place where, in Motte's words, "If you fail, it's your own fault -- academically or athletically."
Motte has thoroughly embraced all the challenges college hockey has thrown at him. Drafted as a center, Motte has played exclusively wing at Michigan and was moved to the right side this season, where he's quite obviously comfortable. That versatility can certainly work in his favor when he transitions to the pro game, as it has for players like Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen. Beyond Motte's skating, instincts and all-around game, though, his ability to shine when given the chance is an encouraging sign for Bowman.
"It shows you the character of Tyler," he said. "He's a great kid. He's got a lot of attributes that we've always liked, and now, seeing the offensive game, it really makes him a desirable prospect."
An individual badge of honor -- say, finishing as a finalist for the Hobey Baker -- certainly would propel Motte to the top of the list of names that Blackhawks fans will anticipate in upcoming years, but right now, the future is the last thing on his mind.
First, there's the upcoming weekend to worry about. Then the weekend after. There are more shots to block, more penalties to kill, more goals to score, more games to win with his team at Michigan. And all the little things he needs to do along the way.