Back for Berenson: The foundation the coach built

Wednesday, October 14, 2015 - 6:16pm

Five former players returned to Red Berenson's program to work on his staff.

Five former players returned to Red Berenson's program to work on his staff. Buy this photo
James Coller/Daily

 

It’s early October, but the sound of a hockey player’s symphony still echoes through Yost Ice Arena.

Skates scratch over the fresh ice, sticks clack against the puck, hollers of approval ring after finding twine.

But on this day, the symphony’s orchestrators aren’t members of the Michigan hockey team. Instead, the melody is produced by members of the coaching staff — an ensemble of former Wolverines who have hung up their skates in exchange for a whistle and clipboard.

Even when the team has a day off from skating, the coaching staff relishes the opportunity to play on the ice where they once molded their own careers.

“We’re hoping to make it a weekly event,” said undergraduate assistant coach Mike Komisarek. “Get a little competition going between ourselves, and we all love being out there.”

Added associate head coach Billy Powers: “I think Fridays, we’re gonna try to get out and start reliving the old days.”

The “old days” for each coach — Powers, Komisarek, assistant coach Brian Wiseman, goaltending coach Steve Shields and undergraduate director of player development L.J. Scarpace — compose the timeline of the program’s evolution during head coach Red Berenson’s tenure.

And above all else, the unique coaching staff comprised entirely of former Michigan players symbolizes one thing: No matter the different paths their lives may take, all roads have led back to Berenson, in what could be his final season as Michigan’s head coach.

Associate head coach Billy Powers was the first member of Michigan’s staff to return as an assistant after his playing career.

Associate head coach Billy Powers was the first member of Michigan’s staff to return as an assistant after his playing career. Buy this photo
James Coller/Daily

 

Powers was the first coach to take the road back to Ann Arbor, when he remained with the club at the conclusion of his collegiate career in 1988.

A member of Berenson’s first recruiting class in 1985, prior to the program’s dominance in the 1990s and early 2000s, Powers signed up to represent the Wolverines at a time when “guys had been so used to losing.”

Michigan compiled a 41-70-2 record in the three years leading up to his commitment.

But the record didn’t matter to him. His coach did. In retrospect, the first thing he recalls about that time was Berenson’s drive and determination to establish a standard of excellence.

For Berenson’s first five years, Powers witnessed his coach set out on a recruiting mission, traveling to Toronto and getting back at 3 a.m. for a practice the next day. All along, he knew Berenson would get it done. It was that drive that brought Powers back to stay years later. 

His passion and confidence were infectious, and Powers came down with every symptom.

“I was always like, ‘Man, he cares more than half our team does.’ I was so impressed with how he attacked it,” Powers said. “I remember that part, and through the good things and mostly the bad things because we were losing, he never wavered. It wasn’t a big secret. Red was all into it. He was gonna turn this program around. There was no question in his mind.”

As both a player and a graduate assistant coach in 1988 and 1989, Powers watched as the influx of freshmen followed Berenson, each year the quality of players improving.

Powers’ prophecy that Berenson would change things in Ann Arbor came true, as the Wolverines improved to 116-81-14 in the five years after his freshman season.

Though Powers left Michigan with former Michigan assistant coach Larry Pedrie for a two-year coaching stint at Illinois-Chicago, his positive memories drew him back to Yost for good — an attraction he’s highlighted as one of the main reasons so many former players have returned.

“(For) the majority of players that leave, this was the best time,” Powers said. “This was where I learned the most, where I had the most fun. This is where I evolved. You’re kinda drawn back to where things have been really good for you, where you feel you’ve grown the most as a person.” 

For Powers, the opportunity to come back has been special. Once a piece of Berenson’s earliest recruiting efforts to turn the program around, Powers now plays his own part, pushing the program far past the times of the losing seasons that he remembered.

He coached players like Wiseman, Shields and Komisarek, who catapulted the Wolverines to an era of glory featuring 22 straight NCAA tournament appearances.

He watched as they all made the pilgrimage back to Yost to invigorate the present-day roster. Now entering his 23rd season as a member of the staff, Powers coaches alongside them, ensuring that Michigan never returns to the dark days when losing was the norm.

Assistant coach Brian Wiseman spent eight years in the oil and gas business in Houston. Then, he got the itch to coach again.

Assistant coach Brian Wiseman spent eight years in the oil and gas business in Houston. Then, he got the itch to coach again. Buy this photo
James Coller/Daily

 

After Powers came L.J. Scarpace, the second to return to coach at Michigan.

He entered Yost for the first time when it was a mecca for college hockey, an antithesis of the program that existed before Powers’ playing career.

Upon Scarpace’s arrival, Berenson had already established his vision for supremecy. The Wolverines were coming off of two national championships in three years, and Berenson no longer needed to foster his players’ desire to win. The Wolverines’ winning pedigree did that itself.

“I remember feeling so fortunate to be part of the program, and the feeling of expectation, whether it was the fans’ or whether it was coach and his expectations for you as a student-athlete,” Scarpace said. “We had a feeling those years that I was here that we gotta keep this thing going. These are big expectations, and nobody wanted to let the fans and the program down.”

Scarpace was a goaltender on teams that earned CCHA titles and Frozen Four berths in 2000 and 2001, respectively. He spent a year playing professionally in the East Coast Hockey League but, like Powers, answered the call back to Michigan in 2004 to become the team’s video coordinator.

Though he knew that Berenson advocated for his former players to find their own paths outside of hockey, he couldn’t shake the recollections of what his coach did for him during his college years.

Scarpace never forgot the role Berenson played in developing him, not just on the ice, but as a young adult. This ignited a passion to pass those same lessons on to current players.

After being appointed director of player development in 2014, Scarpace now leaves the same lasting impact on players that Berenson left with him.

While he does influence the players’ success on the ice, he more directly cherishes the chance to help develop players in the classroom, preparing them for a life after they let go of the game they love.

As Scarpace mentors young men, not just hockey players, he never forgets the lessons he learned from his former coach.

“Coach used to joke with me when I first started back here, and I was video coordinator for many years. He would tease me and say, ‘Well maybe you should be paying us, you’re getting a master’s degree in coaching,’ ” Scarpace said. “I’d laugh, but that’s how I feel. … It’s helped me now (with) what I’m doing, I know I’m more prepared to do it now than I’ve ever been, because of being around Coach.”

The legacy Scarpace stepped into during his collegiate career was partly built by Wiseman and Shields.

The two lifelong friends were roommates as Wolverines. As members of the program’s golden age, their times at Michigan were the fruits of Berenson and Powers’ labor.

They both made appearances in the 1992 and 1993 Frozen Fours, laying the groundwork before the Wolverines’ national championships in 1996 and 1998 that Scarpace narrowly missed being a part of.

Those are the teams that Wiseman envisions for this program going forward.

Berenson and Powers’ expectations for success and Wiseman’s own collegiate experience have become like gasoline thrown on the fire, fueling a belief that the program should be nothing short of the greatness that was celebrated in the ’90s.

“To look back now, we were part of a pretty good era. … After our class left in 1994, they took another step forward with the two national championships,” Wiseman said. “We’re trying to build and get that back. Tight teams, close teams, worked very hard, respected one another on and off the ice. But pushed one another as well. I think our team has the makings of that type of mindset and team frame.”

Wiseman, a Hobey Baker finalist in 1993, led Michigan in scoring with 19 goals and 50 assists, while Shields was the first goalie in NCAA history to reach 100 wins.

Both spent time in the National Hockey League, but they had very different paths back to the Wolverines’ coaching staff.

Wiseman’s professional career was derailed by concussions, and when that struggle presented itself, the first person he turned to was Berenson.

He returned to Michigan to coach while rehabbing the injury in hopes of being able to play professionally again, but in two years, he was never cleared by doctors.

Two years later, with a young daughter and a wife back in Texas, Wiseman gave up coaching to be with his family and entered the oil and gas business back in Houston for roughly eight years.

Then came the itch — the same itch that Powers and Scarpace felt after leaving Berenson behind in Ann Arbor.

He spent the next year as an assistant coach under Mike Yeo in the NHL minor leagues.

Then Berenson answered the call again.

Former Michigan associate head coach Mel Pearson had just accepted a head coaching position at Michigan Tech, and, in Berenson’s eyes, Wiseman was the man to fill the open position.

His wife and family gave their approval, and Wiseman was reunited with his old coach, becoming the third former Wolverine to join the coaching staff. He emphasized the tie he has always felt to this program as the factor that allowed him to come back to Ann Arbor.

“I used to call back here all the time. I followed the program and their success that they had when I was away from here and not even involved in hockey,” Wiseman said. “You always have a connection here. We have this alumni event — we had over seven decades of hockey players show up. It’s a unique association that Red’s built here. Once you’re a part of it, you’re always a part of it.”

Steve Shields (left) has reconnected with fellow coaches, including Wiseman (right), his former teammate with whom he eats dinner almost every night.

Steve Shields (left) has reconnected with fellow coaches, including Wiseman (right), his former teammate with whom he eats dinner almost every night. Buy this photo
James Coller/Daily

The connection that Wiseman felt wasn’t an anomaly. For Shields, he was always certain of one thing: he felt like Ann Arbor was a second home, and he wanted to come back.

Though Wiseman and Shields went their separate ways in 1994, they never lost touch, eventually allowing Shields to fulfill his dream of returning to Yost.

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for Shields. After retiring from a 12-year NHL career, Berenson and Wiseman reached out to him when Josh Blackburn could no longer serve as the goaltender coach.

Entering his sixth month as a member of the staff, Shields’ impact has already made a mark.

Described as “the biggest kid on the ice” by junior goaltender Zach Nagelvoort, Shields has become a refreshing presence in the Wolverines’ locker room.

“(The players feel) way more comfortable,” Powers said. “And these two, like Shields and Komisarek, just the blending in with these guys is unbelievable. They don’t have to be a ‘coach.’ They’re more like a help or guide. So they can really have a pretty unique relationship that we can’t have with the players.”

Even now, pretty much every night after work, Shields ends up with Wiseman and his family hanging out.

“I’m basically part of Wiseman’s family at this point,” Shields said. “I’m just always around.”

The pair’s relationship is representative of the broader connection that this hockey fraternity provides, the same one that brought these coaches back together.

Undergraduate assistant coach Mike Komisarek returned to Michigan for his degree and then stayed on Red Berenson’s staff.

Undergraduate assistant coach Mike Komisarek returned to Michigan for his degree and then stayed on Red Berenson’s staff. Buy this photo
James Coller/Daily

Komisarek is the final piece of the coaching staff, an 11-year NHL veteran who returned to the program just a year before Shields as an undergraduate assistant coach.

Like Shields and Wiseman, Komisarek suited up for the Wolverines during a period of dominance, playing in two of the eight Frozen Fours that Michigan reached in an 11-year span.

And like every other coach that came before him, it was Berenson who supplied the road map for his return.

After retiring in 2014, Komisarek met with Berenson, who was adamant about his old blueliner coming back to finish his degree. With the degree also came an opportunity to help with the hockey team.

Once that conversation happened, Berenson recruited Komisarek as fervently as he recruited players back in 1985, calling him every couple weeks asking if he had found a house in Ann Arbor yet.

Berenson was the reason Komisarek became a Wolverine in 2000 and the reason he returned to complete his education last year. Now, Komisarek is giving back the same passion that his old coach showed for him.

“I’m from Long Island, Yankee Stadium, you know, the House That Ruth Built. Everytime I come to this building, I see Yost, I see the exterior,” Komisarek said. “I walk in. I see the stands and the press box, the balcony and everything that they’ve done in here is because of Red Berenson. I don’t think about when he’s going to leave or when that day (will) come, but making sure that the way he started and the way he built this program is the way he’s going to leave.

“It’s about getting back to where we were, where we’re supposed to be.”

Berenson, in many ways the program's patriarch, will begin his 32nd season as Michigan’s coach Friday night. Nobody says much about when that run might come to an end and what will follow it, but as the coaches skated on the Yost ice once more, that scene might have been glimpse.

You could see into the past. You could see the foundation Berenson built and the people who forged the Michigan hockey program into what it is today.

And the next day, when the Wolverines went back to practice, you could see the present.

Now, given the history that lives through these coaches, and the talent these players possess, maybe we know what's to come in the future.