Chase Pearson maintains an intense, inner drive to pursue his dream of playing in the NHL.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Life is unpredictable, as Chase Pearson can attest, but somehow he had the good fortune of being tabbed with a first name to match his singular focus.
Even in the darkest of times – when hockey was the furthest thing from his mind – Pearson has done his best to keep his eyes on the prize and never falter from chasing his dream.
It’s in his blood.
His father, Scott Pearson, played 292 NHL games for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Quebec Nordiques, Edmonton Oilers, Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders during an NHL career that spanned from 1988 to 2000.
Like his father, Pearson was born in Cornwall, Ontario. But the younger Pearson grew up in the unlikely hockey environment of Alpharetta, Ga., which was home for his mother and where his father built a career in the health care field after he was finished playing the game.
Pearson also played soccer, baseball and lacrosse among other sports while growing up, but hockey was always his first love. And while the Atlanta area might not seem like a hockey hotbed – the Thrashers were a frequent target for relocation rumors during the team’s stay in the NHL, eventually departing for Winnipeg in 2011 – Pearson felt it was the perfect place to make a name for himself.
“I didn’t know any different,” he said. “As I got older, I realized a lot of the better players came out of places other than Georgia, but I didn’t let that affect my work ethic. Growing up, I was always pretty focused. I knew what I wanted to do, and I think that attitude helped propel me out of hockey in Georgia.”
Pearson listened to his father, who had a key to the local rink and encouraged his son to practice some mornings before school and regularly in the afternoons after school.
“My dad played for a long time, so he was very knowledgeable about the game,” he said. “I was always pretty self-driven, so he never had to push me to play, and I think having him in my back pocket was very essential to getting me to where I am today.”
Pearson was content to stay in Georgia, even when others his age were heading to prep schools on the east coast.
“He always told me that I was in a good spot because I had ice time and lots of opportunities for development,” Pearson said. “If I stayed in Georgia, I could play, better my skills and be a go-to guy until I was ready to leave.
“Just because everybody else is doing something doesn’t mean that I need to follow suit. Not that prep school was a bad route, but it was better for me to stay and take advantage of the opportunity I had there.”
Pearson played for the Atlanta Fire until the age of 16, when he left home to return to Canada and play for the Cornwall Colts in the Junior A Central Canada Hockey League (CCHL) in 2013.
“Living with family made the adjustment period easier,” said Pearson, who stayed with his aunt and uncle, Lori Pearson (his father’s sister) and Dave Morgan. “I didn’t miss home too much because they were always there and they made me feel like I was home.”
He returned to the U.S. a year later to play for the Youngstown Phantoms in the USHL for two seasons, recording 76 points (24-52-76), a plus-42 rating and 157 penalty minutes in 114 games from 2013-16. His time in the USHL helped prepare him for college hockey, having committed to play at the University of Maine.
Maine is the college that produced both Jimmy Howard and Gustav Nyquist for the Red Wings, but that fact didn’t sway the decision of Pearson, who was Detroit’s fifth-round pick (140th overall) in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
“I was thrilled to be chosen by the Red Wings, who were the favorite team of my grandpa, Gary Pearson,” he said. “He loved Gordie Howe growing up, so everything came full circle when they called my name at the draft.
“I’m not sure why, but Maine was the one school that was tugging on my heart. I liked the coaching staff and felt I could be a big fish in a small pond. I felt like I could get more opportunity at Maine, which I did, and my time there was essential to getting me to where I am today.”
Pearson became a co-captain during his sophomore year at Maine, where he made significant strides in improving his overall game.
“From the moment I stepped foot on campus, I knew it was another stepping stone to get me to my ultimate goal of playing in the NHL,” he said. “Being named a captain before my second year at Maine was a big honor. It helped my development because it made me mature even more, because I felt more responsible and more aware of things that I might not have recognized if I hadn’t been a captain.”
His elevation to co-captain followed a tough summer. He was attending the Red Wings’ development camp in Traverse City in July 2017 when he got a phone call that would forever change his life. He immediately left camp and flew home after receiving the news that his mother had committed suicide.
“It was a shock,” he said. “There were no signs, nothing that can explain what happened.”
Although Pearson would come to learn that suicide affects more people than most realize, it couldn’t ease the pain that he felt. “It is what it is. I can’t change what happened,” he said. “The fact is that every day, I’m going to miss her. I wish I could talk to her, but I can’t. Life moves on… but I’m never going to forget her.”
Still, the tragic circumstances left him numb. Finding focus again would be difficult for anyone, let alone a teenager who was still a month from marking his 20th birthday. Pearson turned to the only thing that could help him get his head straight again and that was hockey.
When he returned to Maine for his sophomore year, he was determined to make the most of his situation. “When something like that happens, you grow up really fast,” he said. “It changes your entire life in terms of how you look at things. You never take a day for granted. You realize how precious life is and how little time you get to spend with the people you love.”
Maine head coach Dennis “Red” Gendron saw tremendous growth that second year in Pearson, who became a strong, two-way player during his time with the Black Bears.
“The fact that he assumed that level of formal leadership on the team as only a sophomore speaks volumes about his character,” Gendron said of Pearson, classified as an elite power forward at the college level. “He has skill, sense, and a very good shot. He is also a 200-foot player, as good defensively as he is offensively.”
Pearson said it was the Maine coaches, along with Red Wings director of player development Shawn Horcoff, who helped him see the importance of sharpening his defensive skills.
“They told me that if you want to make money at the next level and make a name for yourself in the NHL, that’s the kind of game you’re going to have to play,” Pearson said. “If you can be a 200-foot player at any level, you’re going to add value. Defense is something I really worked to improve during my second and third years at Maine.
“If you focus on your defense, the offense will eventually follow. It’s pretty obvious that I’m not going to put up points like Patrick Kane in the NHL, but if I can contribute offensively while being very sound defensively, there’s value in being that kind of player at the pro level.”
Pearson, a finance major at Maine, ultimately decided to forgo his senior season and turn pro last spring.
“It was a tough decision,” he said. “Right up to the last day, I had the idea in the back of my mind that I might want to stay and get my degree. At the same time, the chance to play in the NHL doesn’t come along very often.
“As a hockey player, you only have so many games in your body, and when I thought about it from that standpoint, it made the decision a little easier. The Red Wings thought I was ready to go and at the end of the day, I felt the same way.”
Pearson saw limited action with the Griffins during the end of last season, notching a pair of goals in 10 AHL games.
“I think those 10 games last season were really important,” he said. “The experience helped me coming into camp this fall after having been able to get a taste of pro hockey and the lifestyle, not to mention getting to know some of the guys. It’s made the adjustment a little easier and not as nerve-racking.”
He was one of the Red Wings’ leaders during the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City this fall. He scored three goals and added an assist to lead Detroit’s prospects to a 7-4 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs and propel the team into the championship game.
The Red Wings then registered a come-from-behind 6-5 win over the Dallas Stars to win only their second title at the prospects tournament in 21 years and the first since 2013.
“I wanted to make a good first impression on Mr. Yzerman and some of the other new faces in the organization,” he said. “As one of the older guys in the prospects tournament, I wanted to be a leader, too. I wanted to assume that role and do what I could to help on the ice.”
Pearson recognizes that his name is not one that everyone knows, that he may have the unique distinction of being noticeably unheralded among several more high-profile prospects, and he is perfectly fine with it.
“I know I’m coming into the season without a lot of expectations, but I think I can use that to my advantage in terms of putting a little fire under myself to prove people wrong,” he said. “The end goal is the NHL, but I know it’s going to take a lot of hard work and I’m going to have to push myself, but I enjoy that kind of pressure.
“I’ve always wanted the best out of myself and, no matter what happens, that much is never going to change.”