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Trading one 'M' for another: Investigating an unwritten chapter in the history of Michigan hockey

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 21, 2011

Mike’s had become so professional that it was overshadowing the academics.

And for a college hockey coach, these players are simply a different breed.

“Kids are different in every era, but there’s something different about kids from St. Mike’s,” Berenson said. “They can relate to what’s going on at Michigan.”

Without the school’s dedication to education, the connection with college hockey might never have existed.

And without the feeder relationship with St. Mike’s, Michigan wouldn’t be the program it is today. Of the Wolverines’ nine national championship teams, all but one title roster has fielded a player from St. Mike’s.

But the most striking connection between Michigan and St. Mike’s is the one that got away. More specifically, “The Next One” that got away.

In 1989, 16-year-old Eric Lindros, playing his first and only year at St. Mike’s, was already considered one of the greatest prospects ever. The London, Ont. native’s on-ice accolades quickly earned him the nickname, “The Next One,” prophesied as the second coming of “The Great One” — Wayne Gretzky.

But in the 1989 OHL draft, Lindros was used as a pawn by Phil Esposito, then-part-owner of the Sault. Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Knowing that Lindros would refuse to move 500 miles away from home and drop his education to join the Greyhounds, Esposito selected Lindros as the first overall pick.

The Sault Ste. Marie franchise was financially desperate, and the owners knew that selecting Lindros would skyrocket its value. And it worked. Fortunately for the Greyhounds, the OHL had a rule that prohibited trading first-round draft picks for a full year after the draft.

The franchise sold, but it lost Lindros’s respect.

“The whole episode showed me that hockey is a bottom-line business, even at the junior level,” Lindros wrote on his personal website. “I felt like a piece of meat.”

Instead, Lindros looked to the NCAA. His family had already visited Michigan a few months earlier, but he was still more than a year away from eligibility.

Berenson’s team had completed its second-consecutive winning season, but the coach knew Lindros would be a landmark addition, bringing the Wolverines back to national prominence.

When Lindros first visited before the OHL draft, Berenson was sure to make the right impression.

Berenson called Lindros into his office with an offer he hoped the 6-foot-4 power forward wouldn't be able to pass up. Hanging in the coaches’ room when Lindros entered was a traditional white Michigan jersey, with the trademark 'M' on the chest. Berenson then revealed the back of the sweater: LINDROS 88.

Lindros had been No. 8 at St. Mike’s, but Berenson was making a statement.

“I didn't let anyone have a high number back then,” Berenson said. “But (Lindros) was big time, and we knew that. Gretzky was 99 — I gave Lindros 88.”

The offer was made and the decision was left up to Lindros. He chose Michigan.

In an effort to keep the star recruit nearby, Berenson gave Lindros’ family the number of Andy Weidenbach, the coach of Detroit-based Compuware, a team in the Tier-II hockey league. For the fall semester, Lindros tore up the ice just 40 minutes from Michigan.

But a rule change allowed Sault Ste. Marie to trade Lindros to the Oshawa Generals for three players, two top draft choices, $80,000 cash and two more players sent in the span of two years. Experts estimated the price for the 16-year-old ended up at over a half-million dollars.

Lindros returned to Ontario, never playing a game for Michigan, but it was a give-and-take with him. Michigan gave him No. 88, which he wore for the remainder of his career — a 13-year NHL career after being drafted first overall at age 18 by the Quebec Nordiques in 1991.

And Lindros gave back in a different way.

In his short stint with Compuware, a Detroit-based Tier II level program, Lindros made a profound impact on a certain teammate — defenseman Mark Sakala.

Sakala, then a senior at Riverview High School, was a gifted student, but was disappointed with the inability to find an educational institution that coupled his passion for hockey with rigorous academics.

Enter Lindros, who, along with his parents, convinced Sakala’s parents to head to Toronto and spend a year at St. Mike’s, playing alongside Lindros’s brother, Brett Lindros.

Sakala took their advice, enrolling at St.