Mike Persak: Berenson revived Michigan with his family atmosphere
Red Berenson was Michigan hockey.
For the last 33 seasons, he has been the Wolverines’ head coach. And before that, Berenson tallied 43 goals in his senior season at Michigan in 1961-62. That total still stands today as the most goals in a season in Wolverine history.
After his collegiate playing career, Berenson immediately moved to the NHL, competing in the 1962 playoffs with the Montreal Canadiens the same season.
It was the start of a long 20-year professional hockey career for Berenson. And after that ended, he bounced around the NHL, coaching in St. Louis and as an assistant in Buffalo, before finding himself back in Ann Arbor as the head coach at his alma mater.
But on Tuesday, that will no longer be the case.
In his time at the helm of the Wolverines, Berenson has grown to legendary status in the hockey community. He has led Michigan to two NCAA Championships, 11 Frozen Four appearances and 11 CCHA Championships as well as a streak of 22-straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 1991-2012.
But that’s not what Berenson is most proud of.
Two days after winning the Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1965, Berenson began taking classes in the business school at Michigan. He claims that was the best day of his life, trumping both the victory with the Canadiens and the championship parade that followed.
It was the first sign of the family atmosphere he would eventually try to build, as the University and its students felt like a family to him.
The effect the degree has had on him is evident, as he now preaches the importance of academics to all of his players. But it isn’t the only value he’s instilled in them.
“One of the biggest things I’ve taken away from Red is that you’re going to treat people with respect,” said former goaltender Shawn Hunwick, who played under Berenson from 2007-12. “You’re going to do things the right way. You’re going to do it day in and day out, and it’s going to shape who you are as a person.
“And for me, (the) thing about not being a ‘hockey bum’ and life after hockey — I only played one year after Michigan. I decided that Michigan was the pinnacle of my playing career and I wanted to move on, and I took his advice to heart. He helps mold great, young men who play in the NHL, but more so the guys who go off into the work force and in family life.”
Over the last year, Berenson was asked to be a guest speaker in Classic Civilizations Professor Chris Potter’s course at the University, where he discussed his entire career.
He wanted to leave a lasting impression on the class, especially since there were so many student athletes in attendance, so he gave them a bit of advice.
“I think the clearest thing he said to everybody is don’t count on sports,” Potter said. “… I think it was very powerful to see someone who’d been as successful in the athletic arena speaking out to athletes and others saying, ‘You really have to plan your life, and you have to try to excel at whatever it is that you’re doing. Not to simply say to yourself that I’m this great hockey player or whatever, but that the values I bring to the rink are the values I bring to everything else.’ ”
Berenson’s impact was seen Monday in his last moments as head coach. Along with local media outlets and current team players, multiple former players and various other Michigan coaches stood in the Junge Family Champions Center for his farewell press conference.
One of those in attendance was men’s basketball coach John Beilein. Beilein came to support his colleague, and his respect for Berenson was apparent.
“I usually go to one game a year,” Beilein said. “It’s unfortunate that our schedules cross over so much. We were rarely able to attend each other’s events. He’s come to my practices, I’ve been to his games. I just think there’s a great crossover in just the same values.
“… Here’s one thing that resonates that he told us: ‘Practice like you’re in second place, and then play like you’re in first place.’ I just said it to my team before we went to the tournament, when we had all the success.”
The reason that Berenson has earned so much respect all around the University is not just because of his success on the ice. It’s because of how much he loves the University itself.
Berenson came back to the University looking to cultivate a family atmosphere in his program. Monday, as he reflected on his time at Michigan, he considers his attempt a success.
“I want this to be a big family,” Berenson said. “I want the players to feel like this is family. Even the guys I came to school with in the late (1950s), we’re still the best of friends and we stay in touch. I think it’s a big Michigan family, and we tried to establish that. One of my first problems coming back was to get the alumni back on board. … They’re back, and I feel good about that.”
Ironically enough, though, one of the most prominent examples of Berenson’s family atmosphere is a player he’s only coached for one season — freshman forward Will Lockwood, who was the second-leading scorer on the team with 20 points.
Lockwood came to Michigan 32 years after his father, Joe Lockwood, played on the first Berenson-coached Michigan team. For Joe, the opportunity for his son to play on a team coached by a man who had brought him so many life lessons was something he relished.
“I wanted Will to have a chance — I’m glad he got one year, I’ll just say that,” the elder Lockwood said. “Red’s more than just a coach. He’s all about the University, he’s about the hockey, he’s just a great representative of the athletic department. I’m glad my kid had a chance to play for him for one year anyway.”
Joe Lockwood isn’t alone in his sentiment. It’s one that is considered the norm for anyone who has played for Berenson, and for as important as he’s been to Michigan hockey, his legend reaches far beyond the ice. He’s taught the people around him life lessons that they’ll take with them for the rest of their lives.
Whether it’s coaches who have been alongside him through the years, players who have learned from him or students who have simply observed his teams, there is an indelible mark that Berenson has left on the University.
For him to be gone now is going to be hard for many to swallow.
“For me, it gives you an idea that the people that believe in you and that stood behind you, that they’re not always going to be there,” said Michigan goaltending coach Steve Shields. “When I think of what’s important to me in my life, Michigan hockey is just about number one. Not having Coach there and having the coach be somebody I don’t know, you think about it, and you want to be a part of it, but it’s sad that things like that have to happen.”
Added Hunwick: “Coach talked about his best day of his life being when he was in class at Michigan. … But the best day of my life was when Coach said I can come play at the University of Michigan. … I was giving up hockey because I was coming to be a third goalie. Coach told me, ‘You’re going to be a good teammate, you’re going to be a member of this team, you’re going to have to be a good student. He is a legend. I’m a walk-on, third-string goalie, and he treats us like the Hobey Baker winner. … He’s the same guy to everybody in the room.”
Berenson was Michigan hockey. Tuesday, he won’t be anymore.
But the mark Berenson left is permanent. He has built an atmosphere where former players are willing to send their highly-touted sons to play for him. It’s an atmosphere where alumni of the program are willing to come back at the drop of a hat to support another former player who is suffering from ALS.
Berenson is one of the most well-respected, living figures in hockey. The day before announcing his retirement he joined other legends of the game in commemorating the closing of Joe Louis Arena, where he coached the first game played there with the St. Louis Blues.
Berenson said himself Monday, it’s time for the program to go in another direction, and he may have a point. But Berenson and his accomplishments won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
He and his teams have inspired fans to continue to pack Yost Ice Arena despite the up-and-down teams in recent years.
But the reason the fans keep coming back is the atmosphere that Berenson has worked so hard to cultivate in the last 33 years, and for that, Michigan will always owe him gratitude.
Persak can be reached by email at email@example.com and on Twitter @MikeDPersak