In 32 years at the helm of the Michigan hockey program, Red Berenson has had a lot of teams — some great ones, some good ones and some not-so-good ones.
He spoke consistently throughout this season as if he knew he had a good team, right up until that team gave everything it had before losing to No. 1 seed North Dakota in the regional final in Cincinnati on Saturday.
But I’m guessing that for all Berenson knows about this year’s team, he knows next year’s could be even better.
And that’s why the 76-year-old Michigan hockey coach should return for one more year — to lead that team. He loves to coach seniors, and he could have nine of them next year.
Berenson has been signing one-year contracts since 2009, and with three straight missed NCAA Tournaments, it hasn’t always been easy. This year, his team put it all together, and after that, it’s clear he’s still the right man for the job. For as difficult as their regional, dubbed the “Region of Death,” was this weekend, they almost escaped it.
Berenson proved, though, that he can still lead his team into the elite tier of college hockey. New Athletic Director Warde Manuel agrees, and he has supported Berenson since he was introduced Jan. 29
“I hope that this year is not his last year,” Manuel said that day. “I hope I get a chance to be here and to watch his team on ice again. But if he decides that this is his last year, then certainly he will have a significant role in the process.”
If Berenson decides to retire this year, Manuel will be scrambling to find a replacement. If he stays for one more, it gives Manuel time to decide on one of the many suitable successors Berenson has cultivated — Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson (who was Berenson’s top assistant for 12 years) and current associate head coach Billy Powers (who has been Berenson’s top assistant for the last five years) among them.
And, more importantly, if Berenson stays, he could coach the team he has always wanted to coach.
The beliefs Berenson holds as a coach go back a long time. Once, just before he was set to start his playing career at Michigan in the 1950s, the Montreal Canadiens attempted to lure him away to the NHL. The Canadiens tried every which way to get Berenson to fulfill his professional dream, a Canadian native playing on a Canadian team.
Berenson wouldn’t. Not yet.
“Montreal was waiting,” Berenson told the Daily in 2010. “They tried to bribe me, pay me, and I said, ‘No, I’m going to school.’ ”
Berenson told that story to one of his players, Louie Caporusso — though he has probably told it more than once — in an airport during a trip home years ago.
“He went against the grain, and I think that’s why he’s become such a special figure in hockey,” Caporusso told the Daily in 2010. “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.”
After returning their school to the NCAA Tournament at age 76, 99.9 percent of coaches would retire. He should be the 0.1 percent, just as he was almost six decades ago.
He came back to Ann Arbor from the NHL’s St. Louis Blues in 1984 because he had a soft spot for Michigan and wanted to return his alma mater to greatness. That he did.
Berenson has also been an enduring fixture in college hockey, a perfect representation of the ideals of the sport. He urges his players to stay in school for four years, earn their degree and play alongside their classmates.
Over the years, that ideal has become harder and harder to fulfill. NHL teams pressure players to turn pro early, depriving Berenson of the seniors he loves to coach. Every summer, Berenson takes his seniors on a canoe trip up north. He speaks highly of all of them and cherishes the teams filled with them.
Next year’s team could be one of those teams.
The Wolverines will almost certainly bring back at least seven seniors: forwards Max Shuart, Alex Kile and Evan Allen, defensemen Michael Downing, Nolan De Jong and Kevin Lohan and goaltender Zach Nagelvoort.
Then it gets tricky. The other two who could come back as seniors are forwards Tyler Motte and JT Compher, two cogs in the prolific CCM line and two NHL Draft picks with professional futures.
If those two stay, Berenson should, too. If his seniors stick around, he should stick with them.
Even if freshman forward Kyle Connor leaves, the Wolverines need only find a third member of their first line to keep it rolling. They will again have a senior in the net in Nagelvoort, and they’ll have a second-year captain in Compher.
Most importantly, numbers-wise, they’ll have nine seniors, which is almost unheard of. North Dakota and Boston College, the two teams that won Saturday to advance to the Frozen Four, have four each. With the extra experience, Michigan will have a better chance of making a deeper run into the NCAA Tournament.
“There should be a sense of urgency in your senior year, and that’s when most of our seniors have their best seasons,” Berenson said. “Even though they have been good players, we have rarely had a senior that didn’t have his best year as a senior, and that’s why I encourage seniors to stay. I think it is really important in your development and your growth and your maturity to fulfill that senior year. It always shows up on the ice.”
Now, Berenson prefers that his players stay four years, but he has said countless times that if a player has a ticket straight to the NHL (as opposed to the minors), “I’ll drive him to the airport.”
Connor has that ticket. So did Dylan Larkin, who left after one season last year and has now scored 43 points — tied for fourth among NHL rookies — for the Detroit Red Wings.
But it doesn’t always work out like that. More common these days are cases like Andrew Copp, a captain on last year’s team who forwent his senior season and signed with the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets, disappointing Berenson in the process.
“I just wish he would stay and do it right — graduate with your teammates and classmates,” Berenson said that day. “Take this team to another level. We lost to a senior-laden Minnesota team. Well, how about a senior-laden Michigan team?”
Yes, how about it, Red? What do you say — one more year?
Lourim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @jakelourim.