University of Wisconsin forward Michael Mersch is no stranger to performing at a high level in big moments -- on and off the ice. In fact, Mersch's determination in the classroom helped him earn his stripes in his first year on campus.
"I was willing to come whenever (Wisconsin) wanted me," Mersch told NHL.com. "I had to really balance schoolwork, working out, training and my development as a player. It was a unique path, but I definitely matured a lot through the process."
A 6-foot-2, 198-pound left wing, Mersch has a rare combination of size and agility that earned him the No. 83 spot NHL in Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Mersch led all Wisconsin freshmen with 8 goals, and added 11 assists while playing a team-high 41 games in 2010-11.
The freshman forward also impressed his coach, former NHL forward Mike Eaves, by displaying a knack for the dramatic with three game-winning goals, tied for second on the Badgers.
"Michael was a real pleasant surprise for us early in the season, and then as the season went on, we needed him to play big, get to the dirty areas and he was able to do that for us," Eaves said. "When you see the work ethic Michael brings, and his willingness to do the little things, hard things and detailed things to get his game to be the best it can be, it's easy to like a young man like that."
The level of respect between Mersch and Eaves is mutual. The young forward, who was sixth in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association with a plus-17 rating in conference games, knows his game would not be where it is today without help from Eaves, who played 324 games during eight seasons with the North Stars and Flames (1978-85).
"Coach Eaves has been a huge influence," Mersch told NHL.com. "He's really good at working with us on perfecting our skill work as a team, as well as challenging me (individually) as a hockey player. He has great knowledge of the game, and he's been really helpful in my development in trying to take my game to the next level."
Mersch earned the opportunity to play for Eaves after accelerating his studies to graduate from Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., a year early. Graduating early allowed him to head right from the U.S. National Team Development Program to Wisconsin without spending a year with Waterloo of the USHL.
While he was rocketing through his studies, his level of play also was climbing. He had a team-high 27 goals and 65 points with the USNTDP Under-17 team in 2008-09 and then had 14 points in 49 games with the USNTDP U-18 team in 2009-10.
Mersch never has backed down from a challenge at any point in his career. As a result, his path to the NHL is beginning to take shape.
"It (graduating early) speaks volumes about his character," Jon Hull, Mersch's minor hockey coach with the Team Illinois squad, told NHL.com. "The path was set before Michael at a very young age. (Wisconsin) laid out a footprint for what he had to do in order to be successful and go there. To his credit, Michael utilized not only his season with me, but also his next couple years with the NTDP to help shape himself into the player he is today and obviously an NHL prospect."
A major source of Mersch's motivation to chase the NHL dream stemmed from his late father, Michael Mersch Sr., who died when Michael was in the second grade.
The elder Mersch played Division I hockey at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and then spent five seasons playing professionally in the International Hockey League. It's his father's career that sparks Mersch's passion for the game.
"My dad started me out playing when I was really young," Mersch said. "Hearing all the stories about him -- his hard work, the miles and miles he would run to train, etc. -- it's very exciting. It definitely motivates me having someone in my family who went through a lot of the same things I'm going through now."
After overcoming the death of his dad while growing up, Mersch now finds himself on the cusp of his lifelong goal of being drafted.
"Michael is a special kid with a great family," Hull said. "He went through a big transformation when he was with us. He's dynamic in so many ways, which is what makes him such an attractive piece. With his development curve rising under Coach Eaves at Wisconsin, we could be comparing players to him in the future."
It's no secret that Mersch's ability and maturity have established him as one of the more interesting prospects for this year's Entry Draft, which will be held June 24-25 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
The stakes continue to grow higher, but Mersch said his approach will remain the same.
"I just work extremely hard to do the best things I can for my team," he said. "I respect others and earn that same respect from my teammates. I think that working hard and being a dedicated teammate will help me take the next step."