DETROIT — Red Berenson wasn’t supposed to be sitting in Joe Louis Arena Thursday night, next to two of his players, both seemingly holding back tears.
He wasn’t supposed to be rehashing a blowout loss to Penn State — a team that the Wolverines defeated five times last season — that outplayed his Michigan hockey lineup from the halfway point in the first period.
Last year should’ve been the end of a long 32-year career in coaching for Berenson. Many at the university knew this to be true. He led a team anchored by the goal scoring of former Wolverine forwards Kyle Connor, JT Compher and Tyler Motte, who took Michigan to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012 in what looked to be Berenson's swan song.
Berenson greatly relished those moments spent with what he called “a true Michigan team.” But that first line departed — no more C-C-M, no more highest-scoring line in college hockey. The Wolverines just couldn’t rebound from an otherworldly last season.
“It’s night and day,” Berenson said. “I mean, it was just so much fun last year. I told most of my friends that last year would probably be my last year, and by the end of the year, we were all having fun, the players, the coaches, the fans. And the offense was a big part of it. There's no question.”
Instead, there Berenson sat Thursday, attempting to explain his team’s poor performance for what could very well be the last time in his career.
The Wolverines made that explanation quite difficult Thursday night. Michigan’s offensive troubles plagued it once again. After struggling all season to manage shot opportunities, the Wolverines finished nearly even with the Nittany Lions. Rather, the Wolverines simply couldn’t take advantage of these chances. Penn State did, scoring three times in the first period.
If this is the end of Red Berenson’s storied career, it certainly did not finish as he anticipated. It was obvious that this Michigan group wasn’t going to be like the one last season that averaged 4.76 goals per game. But to be this underwhelming? The Wolverines scored nearly twice as many goals last season as they did this year.
Even heading into this season with all the question marks surrounding the 11 new freshmen, Berenson held some optimism. He had hoped that his goaltenders and blueliners would do enough to keep Michigan in games and its forwards would muster a few goals to support those efforts.
But while Zach Nagelvoort, Hayden Lavigne and Jack LaFontaine did their parts, the blue line struggled at times this season, while the offense failed to garner much momentum besides a few spurts scattered throughout the campaign.
“We knew we weren’t going to light it up that much, but we thought we’d be in every game,” Berenson said. “It didn’t work out that way. We gave up too many shots, too many goals against, and we couldn't score. It doesn't always go the way you planned. I thought our coaches worked hard, our players worked hard. We just weren’t good enough.”
The Nittany Lions knew that. Last year, they lost four times during the regular season and once again in the Big Ten Tournament to the Wolverines. In that postseason semifinal game, Michigan outscored Penn State 7-2. This season, the Wolverines never totaled more than five goals, a feat that happened just three times.
This lack of offensive attack was something not lost on the Nittany Lions.
“… I think everyone was just really excited to play them on neutral ice,” said Penn State forward David Goodwin. “And everyone kinda had more of a killer instinct tonight, and we’re just thankful we came out with the result that we got.
“It just kind of gave us a little bit more energy, passion (and) grit too, I guess, redeem ourselves for last year’s performance against Michigan.”
Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky characterized Berenson as a relentless competitor on the ice, but a gracious individual off it.
“To be able to compete against him anytime, it’s an honor, it’s a privilege,” Gadowsky said. “It always means a lot to me. He’s an incredibly tough competitor, and he wants to beat you up really badly on the ice. But off the ice, he’s such a great man and such a kind person.”
Berenson met with Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel on Tuesday to discuss future plans. They’ll meet again after the Frozen Four about Berenson and the hockey team’s eventual prospects. For now, no decision has been fully made whether Berenson will return to Ann Arbor and Yost Ice Arena next year.
But if Thursday night’s game against Penn State proves to be Berenson’s last, it won’t have been the way he was supposed to go out.
Michigan just wasn’t good enough this season. Berenson said it himself.