Seventeen days ago, Michigan coach Red Berenson stepped onto the ice at Scottrade Center to drop the puck for the opening faceoff between the St. Louis Blues and the Columbus Blue Jackets.

It was the curtain closing on Berenson’s illustrious career with the Blues — ‘Salute to No. 7.’

Alongside the 17-year NHL veteran stood three other legendary No. 7s: Garry Unger, Joe Mullen and Keith Tkachuk.

But just as the last strains of light vanished from behind the curtains in St. Louis, the ‘Red Baron’ burst back onto center stage.

Friday, Berenson and the No. 6 Michigan hockey team will tangle with No. 14 Nebraska-Omaha in the opening round of the NCAA West Regional. The matchup will be the Wolverines’ first in St. Louis since playing a pair of games against St. Louis University in 1970.

Though the Gateway City rolled out the red carpet for the veteran coach last time, there certainly will be no homecoming party this time around — that’s Berenson’s initiative.

“I still have a lot of friends in St. Louis, but this is a business trip, this isn’t going back and visiting all your friends — I’m not like that,” Berenson said Monday. “When I go to St. Louis, I don’t even want to talk to my friends; we’re coming to play hockey.”

But Berenson readily admits he owes his career to the Blues. After seven years of floundering in the Canadiens and Rangers’ systems, scoring just 16 goals in 185 games, Berenson needed a change.

That change, he thought, might be ending his career.

Berenson played solely as a penalty killer with the Canadiens, and after being traded to the Rangers, the center broke his toe and cheekbone on Christmas — the gift he wanted next was a ticket out of town. As Berenson says, he “just wasn’t cut out for New York.”

“I thought I was done,” Berenson said. “I told them, ‘Trade me or give me a lot more money.’ And they gave me the money.”

But one person in particular was looking out for Berenson — Blues coach Scotty Bowman. Berenson had excelled under Bowman with the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens, tallying 48 points in 30 games for the minor-league affiliate of Montreal.

When Bowman heard Berenson was on the Rangers’ trading block, he made the move. So the Rangers dealt Berenson to St. Louis, an expansion team with a ragtag bunch playing in a sad excuse of an arena.

“(Bowman) knew I could play, so he made the deal, he got New York to trade me,” Berenson said. “He said, ‘You’ve always needed a chance. You’re getting a chance now.’ That was my chance, and I took off.

“It gave me a chance to prove that I could play. I bumped around a little bit. When I came out of school, I was with Montreal, they didn’t play me, I was a fourth-line player.”

Berenson went on to play eight years with the Blues, sandwiched around a four-year stint with the Detroit Red Wings in which he was traded for Unger to join a team coined the “Dead Wings” in that era.

“I was traded for the icon of the community,” Unger told reporters at ‘Salute to No. 7.’

When Berenson retired following the 1977-78 season, Berenson finished as the seventh-leading goal-scorer in St. Louis history with 172 goals.

And six of those tallies came on a single night. On Nov. 7, 1968, Berenson torched the Philadelphia Flyers for a half dozen goals — the first player to ever record a double hat-trick in a road game.

But at 71 years old, the ever-humble coach has heard enough about that night. He remembers it as an 8-0 win.

Berenson later returned to the Blues’ coaching staff, spending three years as head coach.

During last Tuesday’s practice at Yost Ice Arena, Berenson skated in front of the empty net and rifled a backhand just beneath the crossbar. And then he did it four more times.

The veteran coach hasn’t lost his touch.

“He’s got a better backhand than me … And he doesn’t just skate, he flies,” senior forward Rust said after the NCAA Selection Show placed the Wolverines in St. Louis for the West Regional.

As a player who took his knocks in the NHL and saw time as both a fourth-line player and a six-time All-Star, Berenson has carried his experience into his tenure as coach of the Wolverines.

“I was up and down,” Berenson said. “I can relate to players that aren’t having success, and I can relate to our players that are having success.”

Added senior forward Louie Caporusso: “(Berenson) shows no signs of slowing down. He’s the most intense person in the rink every time there’s a game. We feed off him. His pregame talks and some of the things he says are very inspirational — you can’t ask for a better coach.”

In St. Louis this weekend, Berenson hopes to close the curtains with a pair of wins, and not get sent home singing the blues.

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