SOUTH BEND — Red Berenson’s favorite coffee mug, the clear one he cradles each time he sits down with reporters outside his office on the second floor of Yost Ice Arena, always offers him the same, pleasant reminder. Black font shadowed against black coffee: Start every day with a smile.
Berenson may start every day with a smile, but lately he hasn’t often ended the day with one. He hasn’t found much reason to smile, you see. The 73-year-old head coach is steering a Michigan hockey team on a crash course for rock bottom. Or maybe he’s not steering anymore; maybe he’s trying to regain control of the wheel. It’s hard to tell.
Gazing across the ice at Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend on Friday night after the Wolverines dropped a 7-4 contest to Notre Dame, Berenson wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t the next night, either, when Michigan lost again, 6-4 this time.
Despite four games remaining on the schedule, the sweep in South Bend secured Michigan’s first losing, sub-.500 regular season since 1986-87 — Berenson’s third season as head coach.
This isn’t to say Berenson’s program hasn’t had pitfalls before. They just haven’t had them this badly in the last quarter-century. The Wolverines have earned an NCAA Tournament berth for 22 consecutive years — a NCAA-record streak likely to be shattered this spring.
Most of the players on Michigan’ roster weren’t even alive the last time the Wolverines didn’t make the tournament. It’s hard to fathom that type of sustained success. It’s even harder to stomach this collapse.
Berenson has always prided himself on fielding a roster packed with two-way forwards and shutdown defensemen. But Michigan has allowed 109 goals (3.63 goals allowed per game) and has scored just 88 times (2.93 goals per game).
The Wolverines are a paltry minus-21 in goal differential. They were a plus-43 just last season, and they haven’t been a minus team since 1986-87.
It’s hard to find the heart of the problem. Michigan simply looked outmatched at times in South Bend.
It’s easy to blame the defense. Michigan has cycled through three goaltenders and has had a defense corps riddled with injuries and penalties. Miami (Ohio), the CCHA frontrunner, has allowed less than half the number of goals the Wolverines have allowed.
It’s easy to blame the offense. The three returning 30-plus point-getters from last season — Alex Guptill, A.J. Treais and Lee Moffie — won’t come near that same production, all sitting at or below the 20-point plateau.
And it’s easy to critique these athletes as we just sit back, but if I may … I blame the chemistry. I blame the accountability, which is as important on the ice as it is through the week.
It’s hard to find the leadership on this team. Sure, there is someone wearing a ‘C’ and a few wearing ‘A’s, but the accountability that needs to come from the top down isn’t there. There’s no Luke Glendening outworking his man in the corner. There’s no Carl Hagelin outracing everyone up the ice. (It’s no coincidence that Glendening and Hagelin are the two names guaranteed to bring the rare smile to Berenson’s face.) Most everyone seems as cool as the head coach behind the bench.
I think there’s no lack of talent — NHL franchises hold the rights of nearly half of the players on the Michigan roster — but there’s a lack of selflessness. I think there are players more concerned with the name on the back of the jersey than the ‘M’ on the front of it. I think there’s no sense of urgency. And I think there is a flood of talent ready to slip out of Ann Arbor after the season, a few minds already on to their next stage of hockey career.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe that’s just me. Prove me wrong.
The simple fact I do know is this: barring a miracle run through the CCHA Tournament, Michigan won’t find a way into the NCAA Tournament this spring. The Wolverines swept just one team all season and they have won only one of 11 true road games this year, so a lengthy postseason run seems highly unlikely — though I’ll stop short of saying it’s never gonna happen.
It’s not impossible. It’s darn near impossible, but it’s not quite.
There are some reassuring signs yet, since half of this roster has the experience of seeing the mountaintop of college hockey. Less than two years ago, these juniors and seniors were staring blankly at the white-washed walls of a locker room inside Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Their tear-stained faces told the story of an overtime game that just happened to go the other way, a finish that gave Minnesota-Duluth the national championship. These players wiped away their tears and promised they’d be back.
Now, for many of them, they’ve got one last chance. And it’s nothing like they imagined.
Berenson sat down in the big, blue chair outside his office a few weeks back and looked around at the reporters in the room. Holding his favorite mug in his right hand, he asked if they were enjoying covering this team.
They nodded, mostly. In truth, though, it’s been a hard season to watch. It’s been hard to watch the greatest program in the land plummet from invincible to inferior.
How will this chapter close? It’s not written by those reporters. It’s written by the 26 names that line the Michigan roster, the players that carry the pride of a program and the legacy of one legendary coach. This ending, for better or worse, is on them.
— Nesbitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.