Red Berenson is certainly consistent in his beliefs.
43 years ago, following the 1962 Frozen Four in Utica, N.Y., Berenson turned pro with the Montreal Canadiens, becoming the first player to ever go right from the NCAA to the NHL. However, he was intent on completing his four years of eligibility before making the jump to the NHL, something some of his players today, and others in the college ranks are having a tough time doing.
With the new collective bargaining agreement, NHL teams have more incentive to lure drafted college players out of the NCAA and into the pro ranks before they complete their eligibility. Drafted collegians not signed by Aug. 15 of their year of graduation become free agents. NHL teams that have drafted them don’t want to see that happen, so they work to get them signed early.
Berenson could have jumped. The Canadiens had been after him since his freshman year. He didn’t, completing a career that saw him establish a single-season record for goals (43) and compile nine hat tricks in his last season.
It was only after that consolation game in the 1962 tournament that Berenson left for the pros. He was approached by Kenny Reardon, the assistant GM of the Habs, who asked him if he wanted to turn pro.
“I’ll turn pro, but only with Montreal, I don’t want to go to the farm team,” he told Reardon. I could just imagine Mike Brown saying that to Vancouver Canucks assistant GM Steve Tambellini when he left early, along with Steve’s son Jeff, who bolted to Los Angeles.
Reardon promised him he was going to play for the Canadiens. The two embarked on a drive across New York state and then Massachusetts to Boston, where the Canadiens would their archrivals, the Boston Bruins, at the Boston Garden the next night.
“It was St. Patrick’s Day, in Boston,” recalled Berenson as he sat in his office at Yost Arena in Ann Arbor. “We’re trying to get in, and all these drunken loony fans are trying to get out of the city after a Celtics game and a day of reveling. It was a zoo.”
At the team hotel, Reardon and Berenson sat down to do a contract. Berenson asked for $20,000. Reardon almost dropped dead.
“$20,000? We didn’t pay Beliveau that much!” Reardon told Berenson. The coach laughed as he remembered that interaction.
Berenson meant over two years, and after a little while, he got $7,000 a season for two years, and a $6,000 signing bonus.
The Habs arrived that night, and Berenson knew a couple of the players. The next morning, in his chair in front of a radiator in the corner of the cramped, black-painted visitors’ dressing room at the Garden, Berenson marveled at the array of players around him, starting with Richard, Moore, Geffrion, Beliveau, and a goalie named Jacques Plante, who quickly schooled the young rookie.
“Play good defense, that’s what we do here,” Plante told him.
“Later I found out he was going for the Vezina [Trophy], and he didn’t want some college kid blowing his chances,” Berenson said, once again with an animated grin.
Berenson does not remember much from that game in Boston other than Plante’s lecture and the radiator he sat in front of. He does remember the next game, in Detroit, at the old Olympia, 35 miles from his Michigan campus.
“My teammates were all there — my gosh, were they thrilled for me. It was just so exciting. I scored my first NHL goal that night in Detroit, in front of those guys. What a special game.”
Berenson went on to play 17 seasons in the NHL with Detroit, Montreal, St. Louis, and the New York Rangers, retiring 13 games short of 1,000. During his career, he managed to complete his undergraduate degree from the School of Business Administration in 1962, and a Master of Business Administration in 1966. He began work on that three days after the Canadiens won the 1965 Stanley Cup.
Reminiscing about his start in pro hockey, Berenson remarked that he is still preaching what he believed when he was a college hockey player, and that is to stay in school, finish your four years, and then embark on your pro career.
He is one of the most outspoken coaches when it comes to players leaving early when they are not ready to play in the NHL.
“I have always said that if the kid is ready before he is a four-year player, I’ll drive him to the airport myself. However, most of these kids are rushing out to do what, play in the minor leagues? For what?”
Recently-departed Mike Brown scored 21 total points in two seasons at Michigan when the Canucks, who had drafted him in the fifth round of the 2004 draft, offered him a contract he felt he could not turn down.
“Up until a week before school, he was set to return. Then Vancouver came into the scene and offered him a contract and he bit on it. I was surprised and disappointed.”
Goaltender Al Montoya, the sixth overall pick by the Rangers in the same draft, also left — though that was somewhat expected.
Berenson told USCHO that “it’s disappointing to lose a player going into his senior year. He had a lot of pressure from the Rangers to turn pro. I wish he would have stayed and enjoyed his senior season.”
A week before Brown’s decision came Tambellini’s. The son of a Stanley Cup winner — Steve won the Cup with the 1980 New York Islanders — he announced he was off to join the Los Angeles Kings organization, which had made him a first-round pick in the 2003 draft, 27th overall.
“It’s a sad part of the game when money takes over and diverts top players before they can finish school. It has been Jeff Tambellini’s dream to play at the top level and hopefully he can attain that. I wish he would have stayed for his senior season and had a great final year to his career,” read Berenson’s quote in the story on USCHO.
There is no hiding Berenson’s feelings on the subject, and he seems to be in the minority at times. Some schools see it as a badge of success for a player to leave the program and turn pro at any time. Berenson has seen so many Michigan players move onto the NHL that completing their senior season is what matters to him — or at least that the player is ready for the NHL when he departs early.
Berenson will keep preaching to his players to play until the NCAA says they can’t play any more. However, with the amazing array of talent he brings in each year, that will be tough to do. The NHL carrot will always dangle from the center-ice scoreboard at Yost.
Berenson will put 11 highly-touted freshmen on the ice on a nightly basis this season, including some high draft choices. Will Jack Johnson stay four years? How about goalie Billy Sauer, or Andrew Cogliano? Then again, T.J. Hensick is a marvel to watch, and I’m sure the Colorado Avalanche would love to see him in Denver next season.
How long they, and future Michigan stars, stay is uncertain. What is for sure, and what continues to ensure Michigan’s success, is Red Berenson behind the Michigan bench.
A picture of consistency in an inconsistent business.