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February 11, 2000 - Image 12

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 2000-02-11

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.


Since first taking the ice for the .
Wolverines 40 years ago this
month, Red Berenson has
staked his claim as a
Michigan legend.

f you take 12th Ave. past Cornwall Street and Victoria Park,
you'll see it. The large square building rises out of the land-
cape much the way all of Regina, Saskatchewan fits oddly
against its prairie background.
It's tough to imagine now, but in many respects the founda-
tions of a legendary Michigan hockey legacy were planted there
at the Regina Public Library 40 years ago. It may be a bit sim-
plistic, but this was the point where Michigan first beckoned to
a young hockey phenom.
And the self-described prairie kid has been answering that
call for four decades.
First guiding the Wolverines to national prominence as a
player while resisting the lure of a shot at an early professional
career, then catapulting the Michigan hockey program into the
sational spotlight as a coach, the western Canada native Red
Berenson has become a Michigan icon.
But it was a journey that began not in a rink, but in a library.
On this day a blue hat all but covers the hair that gave Gordon
"Red" Berenson his nickname. A wealth of plaques and trophies
all but covers the quiet room he sits in, testaments to what the
coffee-sipping general has orchestrated since becoming
Michigan's eighth head coach 16 years ago.
But these things haven't always been there, and - despite his
tnparalleled commitment to Michigan hockey - neither has
Berenson. There was a time when Berenson couldn't find
Michigan on a map. That was until former Michigan coach Al
Renfrew recruited Berenson.
What the academic standout did know was that he could find
out more about the school at the local library. So with his par-
ents in tow, Berenson went to the big building by Victoria Park.
What he found on 12th Ave. in Regina that day put him on State
Street in Ann Arbor the next fall.
"The thing that impressed me most was the academic strength
ofthe school," Berenson said. "My parents and I looked up the
credibility of the schools that were interested in me. Michigan
WAs at the top academically."
So the kid who grew up playing'virtually all sports enrolled
hs an engineering student to pursue the sport he loved the most
hockey. And while the academic strength of Michigan
impressed Berenson, what he discovered when he visited Ann
Arbor sold him on the school.
"I came down here, and immediately I could sense that this
was a big-time university. I liked that," Berenson said. "I also
liked the fact that Ann Arbor was close to Detroit, where I could
go see at NHL game."
Berenson saw his first NHL game that fall of his freshman
year in 1959 when the Detroit Red Wings played host to the
Montreal Canadiens. Little could he have imagined that he
would go on to play for both teams.
But not before skating his way to All-America honors his
junior and senior years at Michigan while staking his claim as
one ofthe Wolverines' finest players of all-time, leading them to
a third-place NCAA finish his senior year.
"We didn't win the national championship, although we could
have and maybe should have," Berenson said. "But we were a
real good team, and I felt good with the progress in the program.
I'felt good with being able to contribute."
Though his teams never reached the NCAA pinnacle,
Berenson marshalled the Michigan squad to within two wins of
the title in 1962, scoring 43 goals in only 28 games that season
posting a Michigan record that stands to this day. While the
record for goals in a season is shared with Dave Debol, consid-
er that Berenson scored his in only 28 games, to Debol's 43.
But for Berenson, personal success and athletic accolades
paled in comparison with what he worked to achieve off the ice.
Berenson switched from engineering when he was accepted to
the Business School, where he earned his degree in 1962.
"We had some good seasons, as a team and individually"
Berenson said. "But the thing that I'm most proud of is that
while I was here, I was a serious student as well as a serious
player. To succeed at both makes me very proud."
These days the fabled Boston Garden is just a memory. The
old fleldhouse, a shrine to the six-team NHL, seems best
remembered as a part othe bygone era of professional hockey's
more formidable years. Into this setting, a much younger
Berenson walked before lacing up his skates to play his first
NHL game alongside boyhood idols. Even now, more than 35
years after that night, Berenson calls it the most exciting
moment of his NHL career.
The story surrounding Berenson's entrance into the profes-
sional ranks seems to read like a film script. After seeing his
Wolverines squad to a third-place finish in the NCAA
Championships in Utica, New York, Berenson was driven to
Boston, where the next day he suited up with the storied
Montreal Canadiens at Boston Garden, becoming the first play-
er to ever jump directly from college to the NHL.
If the mere jump alone wasn't already impressive, consider
the TeJlience of Berenson, who had told the Canadiens,


By Geoff Gagnon - Daily Sports Writer

arguably the best team in the game, that he wouldn't leave
school to play despite being courted by the squad since first
coming to Michigan. Interestingly, Berenson managed to finish
classes supporting a wife and two children in a small apartment
rather than opt for a chance at a lucrative career.
Maybe it was the wait that made that night so special, or
maybe not. What is certain, though, is that the moment affected
Berenson like none other in his career.
"It was unbelievable," Berenson explains with a smile and a
shake of the head. "That is what I would call the biggest thrill of
my career, that night in Boston."
"Just looking around the lockerroom and seeing the guys that
I had just worshiped as. a younger player was incredible,"
Berenson says, the smile sneaking across his face slowly as he
names a litany of the game's greats that welcomed him to the
NHL that night.
Berenson's entry into the league may have been the stuff that
dreams are made of, but it was his return to Michigan the day
after the Canadiens paraded through the streets of Montreal after
winning the Stanley Cup that showed just how grounded the
young star was.
Berenson was at work on his Masters in Business
Administration while his NHL career was just beginning to
blossom - a move that some would call unusual for a profes-
sional athlete. It was a move that Berenson knew was the right
"I came back here with the idea that I could get my MBA in
the summers. It worked out great. and I knew I was doing the
right thing for my future," Berenson said. "I didn't know how
long I could play hockey, so I needed to prepare for life after the
But the game treated Berenson well, and after he earned his
MBA in 1966, he went on to play 12 more years of profession-
al hockey. In all, Berenson logged 17 years in the professional
ranks, scoring 261 goals in 987 games. But few of those games
were as memorable as the night he scored six goals in one game
when he was playing for the St. Louis Blues. The feat earned
him a place in the record books as having scored the most goals
in a road game, but the modest Berenson seems too quick to dis-
miss the distinction.
"That was just one night you know." the coach says with a
laugh. "I had plenty of bad games, too, just like every player."
Still, what Berenson accomplished that night in Philadelphia
in November 1968 is something that has never been surpassed
in an NHL game.
At a time when the St. Louis Blues had captured the very soul
of a city, Berenson had emerged as the squad's dominant star in
his prime - even landing on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
In only its second year in existence, the Blues had created a
type of enthusiasm unrivaled in the league. The rabid fans at
5700 Oakland Avenue packed the venerable St. Louis Arena,
prefacing each game by welcoming the Blues to the ice with a
thundering ovation. In gleeful moments, the crowd would stand
to sing, "When the Blues come marching in." The depression-
era building was said to shake from its moorings to the rich
wooden rafters that stared from the ceiling as Berenson and his
team - coached by Scotty Bowman - skated to three straight
Stanley Cup Finals from 1968 to 1970.
It was in the midst of this fever and frenzy that St. Louis
gripped its team in those early days. And if the enthusiasm was
magical, Berenson's feat in Philadelphia was incredible. After
leading the team the previous year in goals with 22. Berenson
marshalled his team into the third period with a 5-0 lead - hav-
ing scored all five of the goals himself. In the game's final peri-
od, Berenson took a slap shot from the top of the circle, and in
what decades later he called the greatest shot of his life, he found
the net and the record books.
St. Louis radio legend Dan Kelly seemed to call Berenson's
name all night as the center tallied seven points in all with an
assist complementing the six goals. 6
Berenson's coffee cup is now nearly empty. As he crosses his
legs on the leather sofa, his socks hang down and bunch up
around his feet. He wears no shoes today, having just slipped out
of skates after coming off the ice with his team - a team that
is very much his in every sense of the word. But it's takenf


Coach Red Berenson celebrates Michigan's 1998 NCAA title, his second in three years.

Berenson years to make it so.
Ironically, the man credited for rebuilding Michigan's hockey
program after taking over in 1984 never pictured himself mov-
ing from the ice to the bench after his playing days.
Nevertheless. Berenson became the Blues' coach soon after
his playing career. In St. Louis, Berenson guided the Blues to
their finest record to date while collecting NHL Coach of the
year honors in 1979 in his second season as the St. Louis skip-
"I never saw myself becoming a coach, Berenson said. "And
looking back, I see that I wasn't nearly as prepared for it as I am
Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham and his staff never
questioned Berenson's preparedness as they approached the
NH L veteran with the notion of making a return to his alma
mater on two separate occasions before finally signing him in
"When I had been talked to earlier about coming here to
Michigan. the timing wasn't right on both occasions, and I never
gave it serious consideration," Berenson said. "This time,
though, the opportunity caught me at the right time and the chal-
lenge looked good. I thought I could give something back to
Coincidentally, the Wolverines at the time were anxious to be
on the receiving end of whatever anyone would be willing to
give back. The program had fallen on dark times in the early
1980s, failing to muster even a winning record in the first half
of that decade.
"When I got here, I was kind of disappointed to find that
things weren't in great shape. The overall image of the team
wasn't very good. The support wasn't very good. You used to be
able to sit anywhere you wanted at a game," Berenson said.
Immediately, Berenson identified his objectives and set out to
repair the program that had given him his start. His first goal
was to improve the perception of Michigan hockey among fans
and recruits.
"I saw right away that we had to change things," Berenson
remembers. "We needed to change the way the program was
Berenson admits that at first he may have underestimated the
time that it would
take to turn things
"I thought maybe I
could make more of
a difference than I
actually did,"
Berenson said. "I
saw that we had a lot
of work to do."
True to form, the
Berenson decided
that the work to be
done had better be
done in a respectable
manner. Which
* meant that when the
new coach took the
helm, he made sure
to honor all of the
promised to players
who didn't fit the
direction of his pro-
Where other
incoming college
coaches have simply

handed players their walking papers' in favor of their own
recruits, Berenson never thought twice about protecting the edu-
cation of those that were cut from the team. And though
Berenson's regard for education may have cost the Michigan
program time in its ascent to the top, it gave Berenson and his
staff reassurance in knowing they had done the right thing as
"Some coaches, when they come in, get rid of the players and
use their scholarships to bring in the ohes they want, and within
a year they've got a better team," Berenson said. "I knew we
couldn't do that. We did things the right way even though it took
a little longer."
The room is quieter now as players have filed out of the near-
by lockerroom.
Things are much different these days. From the championship
trophies that look down from a shelf near our seat, to the refur-
bished offices and lockerroom that adjoin the lounge we occu-0
py, Michigan hockey has seen a great deal of change.
And perhaps the greatest stems from what they've been able
to accomplish on the ice.
The Wolverines have advanced to the NCAA tournament in
nine straight seasons, reaching the Frozen Four in six of them.
The two national titles that Michigan has claimed under
Berenson, in 1996 and in 1998, have given the Wolverines an
NCAA record nine total titles. If any lingering doubt
remained as to the impact Michigan hockey has made in
recent years following such a dramatic turnaround, one has to
look no further than the fan support that the program has been
able to attract.
Bordering on fanatical, Michigan's hockey faithful have made
things difficult for ticket takers as well as opposing players in
recent years, giving the Wolverines a home-ice advantage per-
haps unsurpassed in college.
But these things don't surprise Berenson, - they were all part
of the plan to make Michigan a dominant program on the
national scene.
"When I got here I found out I had a lot to learn,' Berenson
admits. "We were really behind schools like Bowling Green and
Lake Superior - schools that I hadn't even heard of before
coming here. I figured Michigan deserved to be a national pow-
erhouse and that's been our goal from day one."
And as a legion of former Wolverines greats pictured in their
NHL careers stare down from the wall at the coach, it's easy to
see that Berenson has put Michigan right where he wanted it all
But even after a pair of national titles, Michigan's win-
niningest coach hasn't let the pressure to stay on top numb him
to the realities of why he came to Michigan - as a player and a
coach. The.truth remains today, as much as it did 40 years ago,
that the education hockey players receive at Michigan is the rea-
son they are at the school.
"Our players are here to go to school. I want them to get
something out of school and recognize that there is life after
hockey," Berenson said. "I even want them to prepare for life as
if the degrees they earn here will not be their last."
The example set by Berenson himself only makes his dedica-
tion to upholding educational values that much more striking.
Forty years ago, Berenson fended off professional hockey
clubs anxious to make him a star. He was determined to fulfill a
commitment and complete school. Forty years later, that attitude
remains and that determination continues to inspire his players*
The coffee cup sits empty at our feet while the coach folds his
hands on his lap. They are thick and solid - the kind that com-
mand respect when shaken. They are the kind that seem to tell a
story of their own; they are very much like Red Berenson him-
In the 40 years since Berenson first came to Michigan, things

A Michigan legend as a player and a coach, Red Berenson's connection with Michigan
hockey ates back 40 years. From his All-America days as a player to coaching the
Wolverines to a pair of national titles, Berenson has come to personify the excellence of
the program he's defined.





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