October 2008 | Home
Stand outside the Fishbowl and Mason Hall, and you're right where U-M began. Take a trip through time in this slideshow.
As a young man, Red Berenson kept preparing for life after hockey. Now 68, he's still among the best in the business.
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The accidental coach
Though he ranks among hockey's best players and coaches, Red Berenson is still rather surprised to be making a living in the sport he loves.
October 14, 2008
Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson is in the last year of his contract. Some time this season, he will have to decide whether to return for another year, or hand his whistle to the next generation and enjoy his retirement.
It's not surprising that a 68-year old coach, in his 25th season, might be weighing such decisions. What surprises Berenson is that he's still coaching at all. "It wasn't the plan," he says.
Berenson's relationship with Michigan started a half-century ago—on the recruiting equivalent of a blind date. No one would have guessed it would lead to a golden anniversary this year. At the time he was the best player on the Regina Pats, the top farm team of the Montreal Canadiens—who happened to be the best team in the six-team NHL They wanted Berenson to sign with their club—badly.
It looked like a match made in hockey heaven—but Berenson had other ideas. He was only 18, but wise enough to realize pro hockey wasn't going to last a lifetime. When he told the Montreal GM, Frank Selke, of his college plans, Selke warned him, "If you go to an American college, you'll never become a pro."
Berenson didn't flinch. In the spring of twelfth grade, he and his hockey buddies trotted down to the only library in Regina to find out which American college had the best combination of academics and hockey.
"It was pretty clear Michigan stood at the top," he says. "After I came down on a visit, I came back and told the other guys, 'This is where we're going.'" Just like that, Berenson singlehandedly established a pipeline of hockey talent which delivered a dozen ringers to Michigan over the next decade.
Berenson quickly proved to be as good as advertised. He set a pile of records, including most goals in a season (43), which still stands. He also graduated in three and a half years, despite changing majors from engineering to geology to business, and was thrilled to get a job offer from U.S. Steel in Gary, Indiana. "It made me feel so good," he recalls, "to have something else to rely on instead of hockey."
Hockey beckoned anyway. Just minutes after he played his last college game, Berenson took a shower and caught a ride to Boston, where he played the next night for the Canadiens. That trip made him the first player to jump directly from college to the NHL—and it also proved Frank Selke wrong.
Three years later, Berenson's Canadiens won the Stanley Cup. One day Berenson was shadowing the great Bobby Hull to help win the grail, and the next he was sitting in a Michigan business school classroom to start on his M.B.A.
Although his B-school classmates didn't know who he was, Berenson remembers "very clearly what a good feeling it was to be there. I was preparing for life after hockey." But a funny thing happened during his preparations for a life after hockey: He's never had one.
"I always thought about what I'd do when it was over, but for one reason or another, it hasn't ended," he says. "I was lucky."
After 17 years in the NHL, Berenson went directly into coaching his old NHL team, the St. Louis Blues. Berenson earned Coach of the Year honors in 1981—and a pink slip the next.
"One of the coaches said, 'You've gone to college, why don't you go back and get one of those cushy college jobs?'" Berenson's wife Joy recalls. "We both laugh at the memory."
Former Michigan athletic director Don Canham had tried to recruit Berenson to coach his alma mater twice before. But it was not until 1984 that Berenson took the job.
"I had no idea what I was getting into," Berenson now admits, with a chuckle. "I was not the perfect choice. But I had a good feel for Michigan, the tradition, the excellence, and what I call a 'Michigan kid.' I wanted the boys to play an exciting, clean style, to take advantage of the academic opportunities here, and to build something we could be proud of. I wanted to build a program that would last, not just a team."
It didn't come easily. The once proud program had fallen on hard times. In Berenson's first year, Michigan blew a 7-2 lead against lowly Ferris State on a Friday night, losing 9-7. Berenson was so despondent, he let the team bus go back to the hotel without him, so he could make the three mile trudge through wind, slush and ice with himself and his dark thoughts. The next night the Bulldogs sent the Wolverines packing with a 9-0 spanking, completing the sweep and a 16-0 scoring run.
"That was the lowest point," Berenson says. "A devastating loss. It was hard for me to accept. The expectations of the players and the coaches were different, and it was slow to change."
Making matters worse, the Wolverines had to return to Ann Arbor to play a Soviet All-Star squad in a rare Sunday night exhibition. The question was not if Spartak would win, but just how ugly it would get. And if that wasn't enough pressure, Michigan had its best prospect, Myles O'Connor, class valedictorian of his Alberta high school and a third-round pick of the New Jersey Devils, in town for his official visit. "Our reputation had slipped," Berenson says, "so it was like pulling teeth to get the top players just to visit Michigan. I was thrilled just to get Myles on campus."
But the Wolverines stunned the Soviet squad—and probably themselves—when local hero Joey Lockwood buried a breakaway goal in the last minute to win, 5-4.
"It was like we'd won the Olympics," Berenson says. "And Myles sees all this, the only time he saw our team play. Had he seen us the night before, he never would have come."
It took three more years for Berenson to post the first of his 21 straight winning seasons. It took three more seasons to earn the first of Michigan's 18 straight NCAA invitations, and another five to earn Berenson's first national title, in 1996. The team added another—the school's ninth, an NCAA record—in 1998, and has been a perennial top ten team since. This year's team is ranked second in the nation, and with 21 players returning has an excellent chance to win the school's tenth NCAA title.
In a career of surprises, perhaps the biggest for Berenson is that he's still in hockey. "Canham told me you don't want to be coaching when you're 50," Berenson recalls. "I wasn't sure about that, but I never thought I'd be coaching at 60. But here I am at 68, and I'm still at it. I'm not the kind of coach who has to hang on to this job to survive, and there are no records I'm shooting for, so I must want to be coaching. I like my team, I've got a great staff, and I still look forward to coming to the rink each day.
Each year his teams have a higher graduation rate than that of the student body as a whole—over 90-percent before players started leaving early for the NHL a few years ago. "I want to see them go on to achieve their dreams of playing in the NHL if they can," he says. "But I still think what keeps me going, my greatest gratification, is to see them move on after hockey and become really good people who make a difference.
"Guys like Brendan Morrison"—U-M's first winner of the Hobey Baker trophy, the Heisman of hockey—"who graduated in four years with a degree in economics. He's still playing in the NHL 12 years later. Or Bobby Gassoff, who's now a Navy Seal. Or Chris Fox, an up and coming neurosurgeon—one of a half-dozen of our players who've become doctors in the past decade.
"I'm not sure what I'll do this spring, but I can tell you one of the reasons I came back to Michigan is that it made such an impact on me as a person. Those four years were the best four years of my life. If I could contribute to other players having that experience—well, that's what makes me tick.
"I didn't expect to be doing this so long. But I'm glad I have."
Bo's Lasting Lessons, with the late Coach Schembechler, which became a national best seller. He also teaches at U-M, gives weekly commentary on Michigan Public Radio, and delivers speeches across the country. His website is www.johnubacon.com.is Michigan Today's sports columnist and the author of "Blue Ice: The Story of Michigan Hockey." He has written for Time, ESPN and Sports Illustrated, among others, earning national honors for his work. He coauthored his fifth book,