Berenson explains decision to return for 2016-17 season
Red Berenson stood up from his chair, black coffee in hand, and headed toward the door.
He cracked it open before stopping himself in the doorway, glancing back and cracking a smile.
“My wife is happy,” he said.
It was Berenson’s concluding statement after he spoke to the media for the first time since he announced Sunday that he would be returning as the head coach of the Michigan hockey team for the 2016-17 season.
The Wolverines’ coach for the past 32 seasons explained that three factors ultimately influenced his decision to return to Yost Ice Arena.
The first was the season-ending player meetings he has with each member of the team. For the first time in his coaching career, his players had to ask if he would be behind the bench for the Wolverines in the coming year. That led Berenson to the realization — if he was going to make the decision, it would be better to do it sooner rather than later so that he could be up front with his players.
“(I wanted to) let them know that I’m all in if that’s a concern for them,” Berenson said. “I’d hate for a kid to leave school because I’m leaving. I don’t think it should happen, but it could happen. If that would be the tipping point … I thought that was important.”
The second factor, and a critical one according to Berenson, was his conversation with Athletic Director Warde Manuel. One of Berenson’s biggest concerns was standing in the way if Manuel thought it was an appropriate time for the program to appoint a new head coach. But that prospect was far from Manuel’s mind.
“He was really good and he was all for me coming back,” Berenson said. “That made me feel good, too. Not that I didn’t feel wanted. I wanted to feel like it was right for the team — from the players’ standpoint, from our staff and from our athletic director.”
And the third factor came from someone far from the annual team banquet in Ann Arbor on Sunday, where Berenson officially announced he was returning.
While deciding his future, Berenson received a phone call from a former player that played on his 1996 team. The former Wolverine reminded his old coach that on that same day 20 years ago, Michigan captured its first NCAA Championship under Berenson’s command. But nostalgia didn’t bring the veteran coach back.
“We had a short talk, and then he said, ‘By the way coach — I just want to let you know that changed my life, thank you for recruiting me,’ ” Berenson said. “ ‘Michigan changed my life. I’ll be forever grateful.’
“That kind of put me back — this is why you’re coaching really, is for kids like this. Right away, I thought, ‘You know what? That sounds like me.’ When I came to Michigan as a player, it changed my life. … If I’m even on the fence, I can do this for one more year and we’ll go from there.”
Despite agreeing to return, Berenson has yet to sign paperwork to officially establish his contract terms. He has only agreed to continue coaching for this season, but that doesn’t mean 2016 will be a farewell tour. Berenson stated he will take it year by year, as he has in recent seasons.
More than anything, the program’s patriarch simply isn’t ready to give up coaching college hockey. It’s been his passion since his inaugural year in 1984, and that flame hasn’t been extinguished yet. Berenson revealed that he had offers to leave Ann Arbor for NHL coaching opportunities in the past, but had a simple explanation for why he turned those chances down: He thinks Michigan is where he belongs.
It fits, then, that Berenson’s most fulfilling life memory was not a heroic goal or win, but a moment in a Michigan classroom.
“Outside of after being here for a while, and winning a championship or doing this and doing that — my most fulfilling day in my hockey career was we won the Stanley Cup,” Berenson said. “They had the parade the next day. And the next day I was sitting in the business school starting on my MBA. I felt so good about that because I knew I wouldn’t be a hockey player much longer. … Was I ever glad I was gonna get my MBA. That’s how I’m wired. Not many people would point to that being their best day, but that was my best day.”
Berenson has consistently been a relentless proponent of college athletes, first and foremost, receiving a degree. He admits he won’t hold players back if they’re ready for the professional level. But to him, if an athlete is talented enough, the NHL will be waiting for them after they cross a stage at graduation.
After all, he marked adding credibility to college hockey as his greatest success as a player and a coach. When he suited up for the Wolverines as a player, he was told if he went to college, he wouldn’t make it to the NHL. Yet he proved those people wrong, playing professionally for 17 seasons.
Even when he returned to coach at Michigan, not much had changed. People still said if players went to college, they wouldn’t be drafted. But Berenson helped pioneer a new path. Gradually, the narrative changed. First, it changed to, “If you go to college you won’t be drafted as high.” Eventually, though, it became an option for someone with the dreams of playing in the NHL to add a college degree to their resume, too.
“I’ve always been big on life after hockey,” Berenson said. “I was kind of brainwashed that way from when I was young. I met these former pros and they said, ‘Go to school kid, don’t be a hockey bum like me.’ That really connected with me.”
Now, Berenson has at least another year to instill the same values he always has.
He doesn’t have a life after hockey. Not yet, anyway.