Jon Merrill's rocky road to redemption looks as though it will run right through the 2012 World Junior Championship in Edmonton and Calgary.
The big (6-3, 210-pound) American defenceman, a standout freshman at the University of Michigan last season and a 2010 second-round pick of the New Jersey Devils, is one of 29 players invited to try out this weekend for the U.S. national junior team. And since he is one of eight returnees from last year's team, there's every reason to believe he'll be on the American's 22-man official final roster submitted on Christmas Day.
Except there's one big difference between Jon Merrill and every other player who'll be at the U.S. camp in Camrose, Alta. -- he hasn't played a single hockey game this season.
Merrill has been in a heap of disciplinary trouble that dates back to the end of the 2010-11 school year.
For the public record, Merrill was suspended for the first 12 games of this season by the University of Michigan for "violating team rules."
But when Merrill's 12-game suspension was believed to be over at the end of October -- and it was expected he would begin playing games again -- he was only reinstated to the Wolverines as a practice player. Technically, he's currently a member of the team, able to attend all team functions, workouts and practices but he is still not permitted to play games amid a cloud of uncertainty that involves when or if he'll be able to see game action again and exactly what "team rules" he violated.
While no one is prepared to publicly specify the nature of the "violations," it is common knowledge within the NHL community that Merrill has been dealing with some off-ice issues. And, in fact, one of the violations occurred while he was already under suspension (during the first 12 games) for a prior violation. The secondary violation is apparently the reason he's still not being permitted, for now, to play any games for Michigan.
"Jon is working with the University of Michigan and USA Hockey to get his hockey career, his life and his school work back on track," Merrill's family advisor Alec Schall told TSN.
Some were surprised when USA Hockey included Merrill on its 29-man invitation list for the final selection camp for the WJC. Merrill hasn't played a game this season because of the disciplinary violations, though he's been practising with the Wolverines since Nov. 1 and doing extra skating with Michigan head coach Red Berenson a few mornings each week
Obviously, USA Hockey doesn't perceive Merrill as any sort of risk or threat to the program. USA Hockey is well familiar with him as he was part of its national development program for two years. That said, he was suspended for two weeks in his second year of the U.S. program for an off-ice incident at school.
But he's also a big, strong mobile blueliner who can be a standout and impact player at both ends of the ice.
"Like all 29 players coming to camp, we feel Jon is a candidate for our team," USA Hockey assistant executive director, hockey operations, Jim Johansson told TSN. "Jon has been reinstated to participate in (University of Michigan) activities...it just happens to not include games yet, but he is an active member of his team."
At an earlier Team USA media conference call, Johansson responded to questions about Merrill's inclusion as follows:
"We've been in communication with Red Berenson and the University of Michigan. Jon's situation at Michigan is that he's being supported by Michigan and his participation with us is being supported by Red and Michigan. That was important for us in Jon's involvement and his continued development as a student-athlete.
"With us, Jon's got a long history in our programs and has performed extremely well for us and carried himself well in everything he's done with us. For him to be involved with us, we, number one, wanted to make sure Michigan was on board with it and they are. Second, can he help our team? We think he can help our hockey team. So that led to his involvment with us. He's been skating and he's in great shape and should be ready to go, if his playing history carries with him, we expect him to be a big part of this team."
What appears to be happening here is both Michigan head coach Berenson and Team USA's Johansson are apparently rallying around and showing some support for a 19 year old who obviously has had some off-ice problems, perhaps in part because the player himself has shown a commitment to the Michigan program and a desire to work through the issues as opposed to taking the easy way out and quit school.
Many players in a similar situation simply would have left Michigan to sign a professional contract with the Devils.
Merrill, who had an impressive seven goals and 25 points in 42 games as a freshman for a Michigan team that lost in overtime of the NCAA national championship, is considered a blue-chip NHL prospect. Devils' GM Lou Lamoriello has been quoted as being supportive of Michigan's disciplinary action against Merrill and Merrill's decision to stay in school, but there's no question if he were to leave school, the Devils consider him a valued asset.
As long there are no further issues or violations, some believe Merrill could be permitted to play college games at Michigan upon completion of the WJC in early January. But it's also believed the final call on allowing him to play games again doesn't rest solely with Berenson but the Michigan athletic department and university administrators as well.
In the meantime, Merrill will fly to Canmore tomorrow to join the U.S. team and if, as expected, he's named to the national junior team, he'll play his first game of this season on Dec. 26 in Edmonton against Denmark.
That, and take his first on-ice strides towards getting his life and career back on track.