The Wolverines are in Boston this year, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, given that Michigan has made a college hockey Final Four appearance seven of the last eight seasons.
But this year, Michigan has advanced without The Michigan Nine, the phenomenal class led by 1997 Hobey Baker winner, Brendan Morrison.
Gone are Morrison, Botterill, Madden, Luhning and Sloan. With so many rookies wearing the Maize and Blue, no one expected this Wolverine squad to see this success, and to see it so soon.
But everyone seems to forget that Michigan’s number-one asset stayed as last year’s senior class left. Red Berenson never went anywhere, and he’s the biggest reason why Michigan hockey has become what it is today–a genuine dynasty in collegiate athletics.
The native of Regina, Saskatchewan, is the fourth former Wolverine captain to return to coach the team. But Berenson never thought coaching was in his cards, and when he returned to Ann Arbor to take the reins in 1984, he found the transition from player to coach challenging on many levels.
“The first thing I said when I got the job was, ‘We have to change the image of Michigan hockey.’ I didn’t even want to be associated with what the image was.”
The Wolverines had fallen on tough times, posting five-hundred records just seven seasons from 1970-1984.
“I’m not trying to be critical, but people didn’t respect the team, they didn’t respect the program. They didn’t think it was a positive part of the environment here, and there wasn’t any support. You could sit anywhere you wanted [at Yost Arena]. I was embarrassed to coach here the first couple of years.”
Berenson thought a school with the athletic tradition of the University of Michigan should have a team that evoked as much school spirit on the ice as did its gridiron counterpart.
“I wanted to be in Michigan, and I knew what Michigan should be like. And the way it is now is the way I envisioned it. That’s the way it would be someday. I didn’t know it would take as long. It took four or five years before we were even a five-hundred team–it took a number of years.”
In fact, it took just three seasons under Berenson’s guidance for the Wolverines to return to winning seasons. Michigan hasn’t had a season under five-hundred since 1986-87. In the ’90s, the Wolverines have posted 10 or fewer losses every year.
“I wanted to build a program that someday be looked at as somewhat of a dynasty. I thought Michigan should be one of the top programs in the country, year in and year out.”
Berenson’s road to coaching prominence began in a casual way, and it was into professional–not college–coaching that Berenson moved after his playing days with the St. Louis Blues were over.
“When it was getting near the end of my career as a player, one of my teammates became the head coach. He wanted me to help him as an assistant coach, so I did. I thought it would be good to keep my family in St. Louis, so I was an assistant coach.
“Then he got sick, and I became the head coach. So I got into coaching that way.”
Returning to his alma mater to coach college hockey was the furthest thing from Berenson’s mind when he was offered the job.
“The college thing–I wasn’t even looking. I didn’t need a job. I had another year on my contract in Buffalo.
“My son was interested in coming to Michigan, and when I brought him over here to look at Michigan, [former Michigan coach] Al Renfrew asked me to consider coming back to Michigan. I started thinking about it, and I thought, ‘Gee, I’ve been in pro hockey for twenty-five years. This will be a good challenge.’
“So I decided to do it. I had no idea of what I was getting back into. I didn’t understand the recruiting, networking, and so on. I had a lot of pro hockey contacts, but I didn’t have the contacts that Ron Mason or Jerry York or any of the established coaches had in terms of recruiting at this level.
“I inherited a pretty tough situation, but I inherited a real good person in Mark Miller as my assistant coach, and he really helped me a lot in the early years trying to get this thing going again.
“I asked my son when we left Ann Arbor, ‘What do you think of Michigan?’ He said, ‘It would be great if I could come here.’ And I said, ‘What would you think if I came here with you?’ And that’s exactly what happened.”
Berenson is quick to share the credit for Michigan’s success, especially this season, when the Wolverines were not expected to make a run for Boston.
“You knew that going into the season this was going to be something that would be a long shot, whereas last year it was just about a sure bet–it should have been a sure bet that Michigan would get to the Final Four.
“But this season, no way. It was a whole different situation. Not that I’m amazed; I’m pleased, and I’m not totally surprised.
“When you look at some of the players on our team–Rominski and Hayes, and Billy Muckalt and Turco and Fox and Berenzweig–these guys have been there. It’s not like none of them know any different. They’ve been to a Final Four every year they’ve been here.
“I think there’s something special attached to this because all these players have had even a bigger role this year. Turco’s role has been completely different than it was last year, even though he was our starting goalie. He had to be more of a factor in every game than he was last year.
“Same thing with Muckalt, and Herr, and Hayes. All of their roles have changed this year and that’s been the challenge.”
Berenson is as quick to praise his assistants, Mel Pearson and Billy Powers, as he is his players.
“It’s a fact that I have two of the best assistant coaches in the country, for a number of reasons. Billy played for me, and he knows the Michigan way, and Mel has been with me for I think his ninth or tenth year now, and they literally run the team.
“They run practice. I’m on the ice, and I know what we’re doing every day, but they’re running it, they’re doing it. And now, whichever one is behind the bench runs the defense, and I run the forwards during the games. It’s a total team effort.
“I’m responsible for the program, but I’ve got so much input from them. They’re like head coaches, both of them, Mel in particular. He could coach anywhere and is going to be a successful coach.
“So I’m really proud of what they’re doing. They’re the guys that are running this team and helping me. Actually, it’s like I’m helping them, it’s not like they’re helping me.”
Many college hockey fans don’t realize how much Berenson loves his players–and he does. You can hear the pride and genuine affection in the coach’s voice when he talks about what his job really means to him.
“The thing that I brag about our kids is not so much their talent, but I like the kind of kids they are. I think that they’re good kids, and they’re good people, and for the most part they’re good students, and I’m proud to have them as part of our program.
“They’re not just hockey players–and I admire good hockey players. But I think some hockey players come very close to being hockey bums, too, and I don’t want any hockey bums playing for me.”
The most rewarding thing about Berenson’s job, he says, is that he gets “to see the whole picture, to see what this program has become to a lot of people.
“To see the kids, and the fans, and the band, the environment, the excitement–that’s all been great–but the bottom line is to see good kids go through this, and then grow up and be good people after they’re done.
“The wins and losses are a big part of today’s excitement, but it’s nice to hear from former players, to see former players doing well as non-players when hockey’s over. To have a had a small part in their development, in their education, just their background, and then for them to come back, it really makes you feel good to think that they’re still part of our family.”
As Gordon “Red” Berenson prepares his team for yet another Final Four appearance, he tries to find a way to summarize his career. “It’s been a good challenge for me. I never really wanted to be a coach. I had no aspirations to coach anywhere. I never thought I’d be a college coach.”
And for how much longer will Berenson coach the Wolverines? “I’m not going anywhere. I didn’t take this job with the intention of leaving it.
“But I’m not a guy who’s going to coach until I’m too old to coach. I’m year to year. I’m 58, and I don’t see myself coaching forever. It’s not like they’re going to have wheel me out of here; I’ll walk out of here before they’ll have to wheel me out of here.”