Content with retirement, Berenson honored Friday night
Surrounded by a sea of maize in Yost Ice Arena Friday night, the Michigan hockey team made its way out for pregame skate, all donning white sweaters. It was a strange sight before an advertised “Maize Out Yost” night.
Upon further inspection, each warmup jersey was the same, each boldly displaying the No. 9. “Berenson” was embroidered on the back with the captain’s “C” sewn on the heart.
On the night dedicated to his legacy, this part of the commemoration was a surprise for Red Berenson. Though he showed a wide grin, Berenson was quick to explain that when he played, there were no names on jerseys, which were wool to combat cold rink temperatures in the old Coliseum.
“The first guy I noticed was (senior defenseman) Cutler Martin,” Berenson said. “I thought, ‘Geez, Cutler’s wearing the ‘C’ tonight.’ Then I realized they were all wearing the ‘C.’ ”
This was just one of many tributes to Berenson before Friday night’s matchup against Notre Dame. The legendary Michigan hockey coach of 33 years, who retired at the end of last season, was officially honored with the formal dedication of the “Red Berenson Rink.”
The new ice design — unanimously approved by the University’s Board of Regents in October — features Berenson’s signature near both blue lines. Next season, “Red Berenson Rink” will replace “Yost Ice Arena” in the center ice circle.
“That was a good likeness (of my signature),” Berenson said. “I wasn’t expecting anything, but this is pretty neat.”
A video package chronicling Berenson’s career was shown before the opening faceoff. Additionally, a banner sporting his face was sprawled over the Children of Yost student section. During the national anthem, the sold-out crowd of 5,800 fans screamed “Red” when the appropriate lyric arrived.
Capping off the pre-game festivities, a ceremonial puck drop celebrated one of the Michigan greats. As he made his way from the bench to center ice — a walk that started at a quick pace and ended as a slower, more reflective saunter — Berenson stopped at the end of the black carpet to pose for a photo with senior forward and captain Tony Calderone and Fighting Irish captain Jake Evans.
But it took a couple promptings from photographers and a “drop the puck” chant from the Wolverine faithful before Berenson did so.
The once ever-serious coach was too busy taking it all in.
“I really appreciate the gesture from the athletic department,” Berenson said. “I’m thankful for all the good teams and good players we’ve had at Michigan over my time, and good coaches. You don’t do this by yourself, you teach a lot of good people. I was lucky I was at a school like Michigan. Good things happen at Michigan and this was one of them.”
Berenson originally arrived in Ann Arbor from Regina, Saskatchewan as a student-athlete in 1959. He played four years of hockey and was named All-American twice, the 1962 WCHA Most Valuable Player and a team captain his senior season. After graduation, Berenson spent 17 years in the NHL as a center for the New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues, Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens.
While hoisting the Stanley Cups in 1965 and 1966 with Montreal, he never strayed too far from Michigan, simultaneously earning a Master of Business Administration at the university he has always called home.
After coaching in the NHL until 1984, Berenson returned to his alma mater as head coach. His unwavering pursuit of excellence immediately transformed the hockey program into one of the nation’s most storied.
This mindset, which led to a complete turnaround for Michigan hockey, is one he continues to live by to this day. Friday, with the Wolverines heading into the first intermission down 2-1, Berenson would want this same “pursuit of excellence” message shared with the team if he were in the locker room.
“I would just remind them of the great opportunity that they have to play at Michigan and to bring what they can bring to Michigan,” Berenson said. “It’s not what Michigan is going to do for you. What are you going to do for Michigan? We brought you here because of this, this and this — and are you doing that? Are you living up to that, and are you getting better? And are you making the team better? Are you making the people around you proud?
“They need to be reminded every so often. It becomes a job, you’re going to school and then coming down here. But you’ve got to love it, or you wouldn’t do it. And if you’re going to do it, do it well.”
Under Berenson’s tutelage, Michigan players consistently did their jobs well.
The Wolverines captured 21 conference championships and qualified for the NCAA Tournament in 23 of his last 27 seasons. From 1991 to 2012, Michigan received 22 straight tournament bids, an NCAA record that still stands. Berenson led the Wolverines to 11 Frozen Fours and national championships in 1996 and 1998.
Berenson retired with the fourth-most wins in NCAA ice hockey history with an 848-426-92 career record. He also mentored two Hobey Baker Memorial Award winners, 73 NHL players and 140 Academic All-Big Ten selections.
Berenson has nothing but gratitude for others when looking back at his illustrious career.
“I couldn’t have imagined this,” Berenson said. “I’ve been really lucky to have been around good people and somehow, I made some sort of contribution one way or another. And here we are today. … When you get the right group together, great things can happen. I was lucky to be a part of a few good groups and I’ve been lucky to be at Michigan.”
The man who will forever consider himself fortunate for every opportunity he received passed the same attitude onto this year’s team prior to Friday’s matchup.
“The thing I mentioned before the game is that it’s something bigger than yourself,” Berenson said. “You become bigger than yourself. It’s not just about you, it’s about all the things that are going on around you that you’re a part of. Just going to the football games, reading about Michigan graduates maybe going to the moon or whatever they do. You’re a part of that and they’re a part of you. It’s amazing and it goes on and on. It never stops.”
Many in the dressing room skated for Berenson during parts of their college careers, so listening to their former coach address the team once again and seeing him recognized was unforgettable.
“We had a great three years together,” Calderone said. “I learned a lot from him and he really progressed me as a player. It was awesome seeing him out there tonight and getting what he deserves.”
Added senior defenseman Sam Piazza: “It’s really just a phenomenal honor for him and well-deserved. It was an awesome experience before the game today.”
Current Michigan coach Mel Pearson — who spent 23 years under Berenson as both an assistant and associate head coach — praised his predecessor and applauded the recognition Berenson received.
“It was a great night for Red,” Pearson said. “He’s been a great ambassador for the University of Michigan, the athletic department, our hockey program and for college hockey. We can’t honor or thank a man like him enough.
“But it was a nice way to do that. A very classy man and a very classy move by (athletic director) Warde Manuel and our athletic department, naming that rink after him. It’s going to be a pleasure coming here every day and knowing that name is on that rink.”
After 33 years filled with the daily grind of practices, film studies and game preparations, Berenson is now content watching from the stands.
“It’s been good, really good,” Berenson said. “I don’t lose any sleep if our power play is not working or if our goalie isn’t playing well or whatever. I’ve let it go and like I told Mel, ‘You’ve got the keys to the car. Go for it. I’ll be here when you need me.’ But I’m happy with my decision and I’m happy with the decision to bring Mel Pearson back.”
Since announcing his retirement last April, Berenson has kept busy. Over the summer, he went fishing in Florida and hunting in Manitoba. Nowadays, Berenson spends time at his Ann Arbor home with his wife, children and grandchildren.
He traveled to Moscow in September to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the famed Summit Series between the Soviet National Team and Berenson’s own Team Canada. In the 1972 international competition, Canada swept the final three games in Moscow to win the series, 4-3-1. During the recent trip, Berenson and his old teammates were invited to speak and dine with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Instead of agonizing over film of the Wolverines’ biggest plays, Berenson chooses to sit back at home with his NHL television package. However, he still makes sure to either attend or watch every Michigan game, determined to support Pearson and the hockey program that defined his career.
He has also become a special advisor to Manuel, while continuing to work on endowing all the hockey program’s scholarships.
Not to be outdone, the 78-year-old sets aside time to lace up his skates Tuesday nights in the alumni league — on the Yost ice that now bears his name.
“I was playing three times a week until I dinged my elbow,” Berenson said. “But I’ll be back. I’m enjoying it. I’m playing with guys my age, not these young guys.”
Before the game, Berenson signed a young girl’s St. Louis Blues jersey and threw it back to her over the glass. He waved and smiled at fans as he made his way to the exits following Friday’s game.
During the first intermission, he joked with reporters about his age and the fact that he is 40 years older than the next-oldest player in the alumni league. He discussed his views on hockey in the upcoming Winter Olympics and the Children of Yost’s nightly rendition of “O Canada.”
The relaxed and jovial nature of Berenson showed a new side of the straight-shooter, who used to expect nothing short of perfection from his players. It showed a Berenson who has come to terms with retirement and the decision to close the chapter on his coaching legacy.
“You’re totally invested in your team and the game, and now I’m not,” Berenson said with a smile. “I’ve had my time.”