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Character Study: How coach Red Berenson has spent 26 years making Michigan Men

Ariel Bond and Allison Ghaman/Daily
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BY RYAN KARTJE
Daily Sports Editor
Published April 11, 2010

Chris Fox stood at the corner of State and Hoover Street, unsure of where he would go from there.

His path to college hockey had been laid before him like the yellow brick road. Nearly every Division I hockey program had shown interest in him, so he had options at his disposal. He was going to be a star no matter what corner of the country he ended up in.

It was 1993 and his decision had been narrowed down to just three schools. Bill Cleary, who had won the NCAA Championship just a few years prior, wanted him in Harvard Crimson. Ron Mason, the winningest coach in college hockey history, thought he should be a Spartan.

And then there was Michigan.

With Yost Ice Arena a block south, Fox glanced up from in front of Weidenbach Hall and an unforeseen bout of nerves began to set in.

Flanked by his parents, the 17-year-old fought down the nerves, and took the stairs up to a corner office that overlooked the busy Ann Arbor street, which he stood on just moments ago.

He knew who waited on the other side of the thick wooden door.

As the door opened, Fox peered in at a man that he had only heard of before. His reputation, to say the least, preceded him.

Fox had heard that he took a great deal of his coaching acumen from Scotty Bowman, who had just taken over as head coach of the Detroit Red Wings. But at this moment, the coach, with his skin cracked and rough and his blue eyes piercing, felt more like Clint Eastwood circa Dirty Harry.

So the nerves came back, this time like a tidal wave.

This is Red Berenson. He’s a legend, Fox thought to himself.

The coach stood before the Foxes, just as many other coaches had before him. Cleary and Mason glowed about Chris’s potential. “What can we do for you?,” they would ask.

But this coach, the same man who scored six goals in a game for the St. Louis Blues, the same man who won NHL Coach of the Year in 1981, the same man who had singlehandedly made Michigan relevant again, wasn’t the glowing type.

“So,” the coach said, turning to Chris Fox, “What can you do for Michigan?”

Fox was stunned.

For months, coaches catered to his needs, promised him playing time. What did he owe this man he had just met? Who was recruiting whom here?

The coach sensed his hesitation. He had a knack for that sort of thing, like this moment was all scripted beforehand, as if he was prepared for Fox’s apprehensive response. It was part of the game.

“If you want to be a Michigan Man, you should know in the next week,” the coach said to the recruit, who looked and felt much more like a kid than he did when he walked into the office just minutes before. “It will just become clear.”

Fox left bearing the weight of words he didn't quite understand. What was it about this coach that gave him license to give him an ultimatum? He wasn’t sure. Berenson’s aura had left him shaken, but even more curious.

So the Foxes made their way down the block to Yost Ice Arena that Friday to watch Michigan, in future Hobey Baker-winner Brendan Morrison’s debut, defeat Notre Dame in a rout, 13-0.

The steely glare. The ultimatum. The aura. It all seemed to make sense to the 17-year-old after the game.

Chris Fox marched up to Berenson’s office soon after the game ended that night and committed. He wanted to be a Michigan Man.

**

Renovations in 1996, soon after Fox’s meeting, opened up a room perched at the top of Yost Ice Arena which would become Berenson's office. It was supposed to function as a library of sorts, the coach tells me, but that didn’t make any sense.

I look around confused. This place sure looks like a library, I think to myself.

Berenson reads my mind. “I guess it’s more like a museum now,” he says.

He’s right. The room is lined with trophies, plaques, and maize and blue memorabilia.

The coach has his own bobblehead. So do a few of his players: a Brendan Morrison, a Marty Turco. There's the two national championship trophies, as well as a host of others. My eyes scan across the room and down the walnut shelving. It’s hard not to as light pours in from the bay window, catching every hint of gold in the room.

I think of how many people have walked into this room and sat where I was, asking for the coach’s wisdom.

It’s hard not to listen to him when he talks. My attention frequently sharpens with anticipation which builds each time Berenson pauses. “He’s just thinking about so many things at once,” junior Louie Caporusso jokes to me, “His brain has so much knowledge to process.”

Caporusso tells me later about the first time he met Berenson. Fourteen years old, the Toronto native had one objective to make the best first impression.

“The only thing I was thinking was when I shake his hand, I’m going to shake it as hard as I could to look as strong as possible.”

“I shook his hand and he says, ‘You’ve got a strong handshake. I like that.’ ”

Caporusso continues the story, describing the aura that I can’t help but be consumed by as I sit across from the coach, as a wealth of experience and adversity stares back at me.

Gordon Berenson grew up on the outskirts of Regina, Saskatchewan with a rink always right around the corner. His uncle, a schoolteacher, ensured he had the resources to excel, and by the time young Gordon was 11, he was already graduating junior high school.

As he made his way through high school, Gordon’s hockey prospects began to look more and more bright.

But his schoolwork interested him too, and it wasn’t until his coach, Murray Armstrong, took the head coaching job at Denver University that he realized what he was in for.

“There’s only six teams (in the NHL),” Armstrong told him at the time. “You better grow up and get an education, so you don’t become a hockey bum.”

“So I grew up with that fear,” the coach says. “I don’t want to be a hockey bum. I want to get an education.”

The Montreal Canadiens, who had drafted him out of high school, assured him he would never be one.

Before Berenson even stepped foot on Michigan’s campus, where he decided to play hockey, the Canadiens came calling. They told him he was crazy to consider going to college. He was throwing his career away.

“Montreal was waiting,” Berenson said. “They tried to bribe me, pay me, and I said, ‘No, I’m going to school.’ ”

The Canadiens would not be deterred. They wined him. They dined him. They even devised an elaborate plan involving Berenson going to McGill University’s engineering school while playing a 70-game, NHL season.

But when the dean of the engineering school at McGill told him it was impossible and advised him to go back to Ann Arbor, he knew the Canadiens would have to wait. They did, and soon after, he became the first college hockey player to bridge the gap to the NHL.

Berenson told this story to Caporusso — like he has to many players before him — as they sat together in a Seattle airport, waiting for the second leg of their return flight from Alaska this season.

And while Berenson spoke, Caporusso began to understand the aura that surrounds his coach.

“He went against the grain, and I think that’s why he’s become such a special figure in hockey,” Caporusso says. “I love that about him because he knows exactly what he wants. For anyone else, it would’ve been a no-brainer. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of people would have taken it, but he didn’t, that’s what’s so great about him.”

**

Two years had passed for Chris Fox, and in his sophomore season, he still wasn't quite sure why he was here.

With the pressure of blue-chip status bearing down on him, Fox had yet to make a big impact in Ann Arbor. All of the reasons why he came to Michigan: the hockey program, the coach, the education — he begins to question what each one of them truly means to him.

But academically, Fox began to see a future shaping up for him in the medical field. His pre-med courses were his favorite, and ever since his sister was diagnosed with leukemia at a young age, the thought of being a doctor had always appealed to him.

But what about the NHL? Hockey meant so much to him, and his highly competitive recruitment seemed like it had stamped a ticket for him to the big leagues.

Thoughts of transferring and leaving this place behind began to materialize in his mind. He approached associate head coach Mel Pearson with his worries, and Pearson did his best to convince the defenseman to stick it out, even with eight other defensemen on the roster.

“It wasn’t always easy here for Chris,” Pearson says.

So Fox brought his worries to Berenson, whose wisdom was well documented by then.

And Berenson was far from surprised by his young player’s complaints. Fox wasn’t the first, and surely not the last blue-chip recruit to experience an identity crisis when entering the college ranks.

“All these kids are star players when they get here, and then they have to accept a different role and earn that role,” Berenson says. “When he got here, he was a highly recruited player … He really struggled at this level to be ready every night.”

But the coach was the last person who would let Fox, or any player for that matter, walk out on his education without a fight. He began to push Fox to focus on his pre-med classes, explaining that his future, more than likely, lied in the field of medicine, not hockey.

The coach’s response burned Fox up inside. He had never had to face this kind of adversity, and why would he? Everything on the rink was easy before his last two years in a Michigan uniform.

“Someone was telling me that I wasn’t good enough,” Fox recalls. “And I’d never had that before.”

The coach could sense Fox’s discontent. So he told Fox something he would never forget. And he never did.

“ ‘This is adversity,’ he told me. ‘This is what a lot of life is about, facing these challenges and figuring out a way through them and around them. You’ll look on this and be happy that you had this experience.’ ”

Slowly, but surely, after a series of conversations with his coach, Fox began to buy in to what Berenson was preaching. He didn’t have to be a prima donna to fill his niche on the ice. Soon, Berenson began to put Fox out on the ice more often, and before he knew it, Fox had found his place on the team. And aside from an assault charge and subsequent stemming from an incident that took place in the summer before his 1997-98 season which Berenson called uncharacteristic of Fox, by the end of the year, the coaching staff thought his contributions had become more important than the pockmark on his record.

The Wolverines won the national championship in Fox’s sophomore season with Fox playing a small role, but it was two years later, as a senior, in which Fox began to take form right before the coach’s eyes.

It was the 1998 national championship against Boston College and the game was deadlocked 17 minutes into overtime.

Fox took the puck and faked a shot from the left point as a Boston College player went down. Fox drifted behind the Eagle net and passed to Josh Langfeld, a freshman at the time. It was Fox’s dump-off and Langfeld’s next shot that sealed the Wolverines’ second national championship in three years.

The defenseman remains one of Berenson’s biggest success stories. To this day, he still gushes about Fox’s story, despite the fact that Fox never made it to the NHL.

Caporusso retells it to me. Senior defenseman Steve Kampfer tells me yet again. Both use Fox as examples of a player Berenson is most proud of.

“It’s not what’re we going to do for you, it’s what’re you going to do for Michigan,” Fox repeats today with Berenson’s voice echoing through his speech. “How are you going to make this a better place? That’s the kind of character he wants in kids at Michigan. He wants good hockey players, but really, he wants good students, good citizens, good people, people he’d be proud of to say 20 years down the line that ‘I was proud I coached that kid when he was 18.’ “

**

Since Berenson became Michigan’s head coach in 1984, the landscape of professional hockey has changed drastically, making it increasingly difficult for the aging coach to relay his message: that there is life after hockey.

NHL teams began calling players at a younger and younger age. Michigan commits began dropping like flies without their degrees, and the coach’s frustration has become increasingly obvious; he furrows his brow as he discusses the state of his beloved sport.

Players like Andy Hilbert — who was drafted in the second round of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft by Boston — leave early to pursue their childhood dream of playing in the big leagues. Most don’t have a backup plan.

The coach continues to warn his young players of the dangers of leaving early for the NHL, fearing that they will someday live his worst nightmare — being a “hockey bum.”

Hilbert, like others after him, drifts in and out of the NHL, never truly earning his shot.

They’re hockey bums, Berenson understands. And now, it’s his goal to save as many of his players from the same fate. But every year becomes more of a struggle.

Last season, the Wolverines’ best threat on offense, Aaron Palushaj, found himself in Berenson’s office after Michigan’s season ended in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Palushaj had made up his mind, and the coach did his best to support his decision. The sophomore forward had been drafted by the Blues, Berenson’s old team, and the temptation was too great not to leave.

“When you’re 19 years old and have to sign a pro contract, you really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Palushaj says. “I’m not Andy Hilbert, I’m a different person. If you think it’s time for you to go, you can’t just sit back and be scared not to sign. You hold your future in your hands.”

An injury hindered Palushaj from making a splash in his first season. Then, soon after he became healthy again, the forward was traded away to Montreal. Today, Palushaj is with the Hamilton Bulldogs, fighting tooth and nail for the dream he left Ann Arbor to fulfill.

“A lot of guys understand what Red’s talking about after the fact,” Pearson says. “Maybe when you’re 19 or 20, you see the money, you see the glitz and the glamour, and they don’t realize till later on, ‘I knew what he was doing, he was trying to protect me.’ “

Berenson gets worked up as he remembers players who left his system early. It’s almost as if he feels like he’s failed them, and his paternal side begins to show through with each example he gives. With each player, he promises the same thing: “If you’re good enough for the NHL, I’ll drive you to the airport.”

All of his players know this mantra. Jack Johnson, the third pick in the 2005 NHL Draft, is one of the few able to take advantage of it. But he’s the exception, not the rule.

This year’s team, a team characterized by its response to adversity, shows signs that it is beginning to understand Berenson's need to protect it.

Over winter break, senior walk-on Eric Elmblad knew he needed to meet with the coach. He made his way to the Berenson's office, but this conversation wouldn't be about the NHL or professional hockey or anything about the sport in general. Elmblad just wanted some advice about how to succeed in life — away from the rink — so he went to the man who he knew had the answers.

The coach told him to make sure to use all of the resources around him at Michigan, explaining all the steps he took to succeed after his time at Michigan. Of course Elmblad, an engineering major, would have loved to have a career in the NHL; hockey was, after all, his first love. But a career in the big leagues wasn't in the cards for him. Of anyone, having worked from day one just to preserve his spot on the team, he understood the coach's advice all along.

"Coach talks about that life after hockey all the time," Elmblad tells me. "This program is not about becoming a better hockey player — you’re going to be a better hockey player no matter what. He wants you to get those attributes that will help you be better in life."

Chris Fox spent a little over a year trying to make it in the NHL after his senior season, but a serious injury made his shot at the NHL an afterthought, as well.

But it was the next 11 years, four in Michigan’s medical school and seven as a neurosurgery resident, that would prove to cement Fox in Berenson’s mind as a model of the ideal Michigan hockey player.

“He was kind of a surrogate parent for all of us,” Fox said. “Without him, a lot of us wouldn’t be where we are today. I wouldn’t be a neurosurgery resident, I wouldn’t have the kind of personal success I had in my life without Red.”

**

It was an autumn Sunday in 2006 and Gordie Berenson, son of the coach, could no longer bear to continue blowing leaves out of his yard.

Gordie decided to take a break on his ATV, despite the fact that he wasn’t much of a trail rider. But there was a nearly 6-mile run spanning dirt roads in the area, and Gordie just couldn’t resist.

And as the trail neared its end, Gordie could see his house within sight, a few hundred yards away.

That's when Gordie lost control of his Honda and crashed off the dirt trail.

Gordie Berenson’s body began to falter. Helpless and unconscious, Gordie had sustained a serious head injury that would put his life into peril. As he was lifted out by helicopter, the coach was alerted to his son’s condition and told that he would need major brain surgery just to survive through the night.

The coach knew there wasn’t much time, and he wasn’t a man used to things being outside of his control. So he called the only person he could trust in this situation to save his son's fragile life.

He called Chris Fox.

Fox was spending his Sunday night at home when he answered a call from the University of Michigan emergency room. He wasn’t on-call, so he knew it could only be bad news.

“Coach Berenson’s son is in the ER. We thought you’d want to know,” the voice on the other line told him.

“I’ll be there in five minutes,” he responded, heading out the door.

As he entered the emergency room that night, Fox experienced a transformation. All the adversity he had been through in his time at Michigan, all the struggles to find his role as a Wolverine, they were all leading up to this moment.

With two doctors on the case, the process to start Gordie's surgery was expedited, giving him a much better chance of survival. But when it came time for the procedure, Fox knew that he was too invested in the case to perform the surgery.

So while Gordie lay on the operating table, Chris Fox sat with the entire Berenson family, who had been in town to watch the coach accept an award the next day.

Fox tried to keep their spirits up. But even he wasn’t sure if Gordie would wake up from the surgery. And if he did, he could never guarantee to them that Gordie would be the same. Gordie’s sisters, both nurses who spent time at the University, prepared their family for the worst-case scenario.

But Red Berenson was just thankful to have someone he trusted nearby, someone he had spent countless hours trying to make into a man, someone who understood that he was no longer the shepherd, he was a member of the flock.

That Tuesday, the third day after Gordie’s accident, the young Berenson regained consciousness in his hospital bed. He didn’t remember anything after losing control on the path late Sunday night, but all of his motor skills were still intact.

Fox and the Michigan medical team had saved his life.

Berenson still gloats to his players today about one of the purest Michigan Men he knows, the one who heeded his advice and overcame adversity to do something more than just play hockey.

“Maize and blue is in my veins,” Fox says. “And to have this all come full circle with Gordie and the Berenson’s there as a family, it was the least I could ever do for Coach Berenson. It could’ve gone either way, and we had a great outcome. It’s a small, small piece of how I could repay him — a man who changed my life.

Fox had found the role he was supposed to play all along.

“There were some issues during his career,” Gordie tells me last month, completely recovered from his accident. “But the fact that he stayed four years, won two national titles, goes on to medical school and to get involved by helping save my life, it’s really special to me every time I see him. Him filling that role and getting involved in his coach’s life — it saved my life.”

**

The coach is in a good mood today, a week removed from his team’s unprecedented and unexpected run to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

He grips his coffee, always in its glass mug, like he has in every other meeting we’ve had to this point.

I spot something beside his desk that I've never seen before — a picture tacked up to his bulletin board of a bearded, shirtless man, grinning widely in a long wooden canoe. The man looks like he’s at home.

“That’s me in 1972,” the coach says later. The photo was taken on his annual canoe trip, which he still takes to this day. I ask him if he’s ever grown out a beard like that since then, he says no and springs into a conversation about how today’s NHL players give a bad impression with their playoff beards. He’s still the same coach.

According to most of his players and fellow coaches, the 70-year-old is far from acting his age. Some even venture to say he’s in better shape than many of his players. There’s also wide consensus that his backhand is by far the best on the team.

“I think he could go for another 10 years,” Caporusso tells me.

It’s been 26 years since he took over a struggling program. Twenty-six years since he had to stand out on the Diag just to sell tickets to fans and convince them to support the hockey program.

He gestures to another picture behind his desk, it’s of him and two other men, one I recognize as Don Canham. It’s from the first day he took over for John Giordano, Michigan's last coach before him.

“If someone would’ve told me then it would’ve taken five years to get this team back on it’s feet, I don’t know if I would’ve taken the job,” he jokes, dryly.

But it’s 26 years after that photo was taken, and Red Berenson has gotten pretty comfortable.

Now, instead of signing on long-term, the coach has signed one-year contracts, meeting with associate athletic director Mike Stevenson to discuss his future. His meeting to decide on next season should take place soon.

Those close to him insist they have no idea how long he’ll stick around Yost Ice Arena. Gordie contends that even the coach’s wife, Joy, has no concept of when his hockey career will end.

“There’s a time,” Berenson tells me. “I’m getting closer to the time. I don’t know when that time is, but it’s not far away. And maybe a year like this would make it tougher to enjoy the job. But still, I think we’re still doing the right thing here.

“They know I won’t stay here forever.”

Immediately after the Wolverines' run ended in the NCAA Midwest Regional in Fort Wayne, Ind. just weeks ago, Elmblad, the walk-on who hadn't appeared in a game all season long, approached the coach. He grabbed his large, weathered hand and shook it, looking him straight in the eyes as if to thank him for the four years that Elmblad had worked his entire life for.

It didn't matter that the walk-on had played very little in his college hockey career. According to him, he had earned something much more valuable in his four years at Michigan than simply time on the ice.

Less than a week later, Elmblad stood at the podium in front of a packed room at the Sheraton Four Points hotel for the team's end-of-the-year banquet. Of the five graduating seniors, Elmblad was the only one without prospects in professional hockey.

Looking out across the banquet room, tears ran down Elmblad's face. So many people had helped him get to this podium, he stood silent for a brief moment, overwhelmed by the realization.

But as his goodbye speech came to an emotional crescendo, Elmblad looked in the direction of the coach: his surrogate father, his mentor, his confidant.

The coach, Gordon "Red" Berenson, was and would always be the face of the Michigan hockey program, a program which had given Elmblad, as it had for Fox, something he would have never received anywhere else.

"Thank you, coach," Elmblad said. "For making me a Michigan Man."


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