On April 10, nearly one month after finishing his 33rd season as head coach of the Michigan hockey team, Red Berenson announced he would be retiring.
“I’ve thought about this for a long time and I think this is the right time and it’s the right thing to do for the Michigan hockey program,” Berenson said in a press release Monday. “My heart will always be at Michigan and I look forward to the team taking the next step and making me proud as a former coach.”
Added athletic director Warde Manuel: “Red Berenson is a legendary figure at the University of Michigan as well as in our ice hockey history. Throughout his career, Red has focused on the academic and athletic success of the young men who have come through our program while shaping the sport as we know it today. He has developed an astounding 73 NHL players but, more importantly, he has positively impacted hundreds of young men. We are forever grateful for his contributions to the University of Michigan and I look forward to continuing working with Red for years to come.”
Berenson has pondered retirement in recent years. He said Monday that he had received questions on the recruiting trail about his future and how long he planned on coaching. It bothered him, he admitted, that it was an issue, and it played a part in his conversation about retirement with Warde Manuel last year.
The original plan was for Berenson to step down following last season. But Manuel was still settling down into his new job — according to Berenson, he hadn’t even moved to Ann Arbor yet. The new athletic director coaxed Berenson into staying, and so began the last year of his career in Ann Arbor.
And what a career it was: to trace its outline with each of its stops is to follow the history of the sport — and even history itself. To put the longevity of Berenson’s term at Michigan into context, the last time the Wolverines took the ice without him behind the bench was during the Cold War, with Ronald Reagan serving as president of the United States.
Many fine players have filed in and out of Ann Arbor over the years, doing their part to fill the trophy cases and bring glory to the program. Yet it is Berenson’s name that has become synonymous with ‘Michigan hockey’ — and rightfully so.
Berenson himself was once the star on ice, playing for the Wolverines for three seasons between 1959 and 1962. He enjoyed an illustrious career in the NHL, becoming one of the league’s first expansion stars as it doubled in size during the late 1960s. Once his playing career ended, he became a coach for the St. Louis Blues — the team he had become famous playing for — and won coach of the year in just his second season. In 1984, he returned to his alma mater, where he would remain for the duration of his career.
It took longer for Berenson to achieve success in the collegiate ranks. Michigan, once mighty but since humbled, was in dire straits. It had been nearly a decade since the team experienced its last postseason success, and the onus was on Berenson to rebuild the program. It was no easy task. To begin his tenure, he endured three consecutive losing seasons. He took another step forward once the team was full of players he had recruited, leading the team to three straight winning seasons — but with zero NCAA Tournament appearances.
The final breakthrough occurred in Berenson’s seventh year. The Wolverines recorded over 30 wins for the first time in school history and finished as an NCAA quarterfinalist, marking the beginning of a 22-year NCAA Tournament streak that remains the longest streak any team has ever put together in college hockey.
During that streak, Michigan made the Frozen Four 11 times, finishing as the runner-up once while collecting two national championships.
Berenson has left an enduring legacy not only with his achievements on the ice but off of it, as well. A graduate of the university’s Ross School of Business, Berenson has stressed the importance of education to all of his teams, priding himself on molding boys into men. Some of his players have even returned to the University after the end of their playing careers to take graduate classes — like Berenson once did. In recent years, he has sought to raise money and awareness for the cause of Scott Matzka, a former Wolverine who is currently fighting ALS.
Michigan will be in uncharted territory next year. This past year, the Wolverines struggled through their worst season in three decades, missing the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years.
They will bring back the bulk of the team barring any unexpected early departures to the NHL, and may even have a new head coach with ties to the program — such as Michigan Tech’s Mel Pearson, a longtime assistant, or current assistants Billy Powers and Brian Wiseman. Berenson, in his new role as a special advisor to Manuel, will surely have a say in who his successor is, as well.
“I hope there’s some Michigan awareness or Michigan connection for a coach that will feel the right way about what a Michigan man should be like or what a Michigan team should be like,” Berenson said. “We’ve got some of those coaches here today, and we’ve got some great alumni here today. I’m sure Warde will make the right decision. It might be an easy decision, it might not be. We’re going to get a lot of people interested.”
But regardless of any ties the new coach might have to the program, things will undoubtedly feel different.
It is the end of an era and oh, what an era it was.