It was a classic response from Red
Berenson. “Well, up until last weekend, that line was doing
well, and then they didn’t do anything last weekend. So do
you want to talk about before last week?”

Mira Levitan

That’s what Michigan’s gruff hockey coach said when
asked yesterday about volatile junior Milan Gajic.

Never mind that none of the Wolverines did much last weekend,
when Michigan scored just three goals in two losses at Notre
Dame.

Never mind that Friday was just the second time in 14 games that
Gajic didn’t record a point, or that he’s third on the
team in points with 12 goals and 16 assists.

Sometimes it seems as if Berenson would sooner run naked through
Yost Ice Arena than praise the forward, whose career has had more
ups and downs than a pogo stick.

“Everyone knows I haven’t been happy with Milan
Gajic’s contribution here at Michigan, based on his talent
and his potential,” Berenson said.

Gajic came from Burnaby, British Columbia and was expected to be
an offensive force. Skill has never been an issue. It’s his
effort that has been doubted. He’s shown flashes of pure
talent, but has also displayed a unique ability to disappear. He
scored nine times as a freshman, and then found himself suspended
for academic reasons early last season and lost his touch until
late. He started this year by scoring just twice in 17 games.
Gajic’s inconsistency has clearly frustrated Berenson.

“Guys are always giving me a hard time about it,”
Gajic said of his rapport with Berenson. “They think
I’ve had 400 personal meetings with him already in my college
career.”

But before you think things between the two are icy-cold, listen
to this:

“I like the kid,” Berenson said, uttering
uncharacteristically positive words about Gajic. “We get
along fine; I think he’s a great kid.”

Of course, he immediately followed with a “but.”

“But as a hockey player and as a worker and a player that
is playing up to his potential and contributing to his team,
that’s been my challenge and his challenge.”

This is their relationship: push and pull, a study in contrasts.
Junior Eric Nystrom aptly labeled it “love-hate.”

Having Berenson on his back gets old, but it’s exactly
what Gajic needs.

“I know he’s only doing it for my benefit,”
Gajic says. “He obviously doesn’t have to do it, but he
does, so it’s nice to know that he’s behind me and
pushing me all the time. It’s nice to have him there, yelling
and screaming at me.”

In fact, Berenson isn’t the first to fill that role.
Gajic’s father, Lazo, who emigrated from Serbia to Canada as
an 18-year old, did the same thing before Milan moved across the
continent.

“He’s an old European, always has a cigarette
hanging out of his mouth,” Gajic said of his dad.
“He’s the hardass — if I can say that. It kind of
translates over from dad to coach.”

Did Milan Gajic just call Red Berenson a father figure?
That’s something you wouldn’t expect to hear.

Nystrom, one of Gajic’s housemates, said something else
that might surprise people about Gajic is that “he’s a
big family guy.”

“He’s really proud of his (Serbian)
background,” Nystrom added. “He speaks the language
fluently, and he’s so proud of it that he’s always
razzing everybody else, and everyone makes fun of him for being
Serbian.”

If Gajic isn’t talking about his heritage, chances are
he’s still talking about something, and if you’re
anywhere in the vicinity, you’ll hear him.

“He always has to get the last word in, and when he does,
it’s loud,” Nystrom said. “He’s hilarious.
He’s fun to be around all the time, and I think his demeanor
really lightens our team up and makes our team kind of
gel.”

Lately, Gajic has been doing a lot more than keeping the
dressing room loose. Since winter break, he has been contributing
on the ice — consistently.

“The past few years, we didn’t think he was playing
as hard as he possibly could,” Nystrom said. “When he
started catching fire (this season) is when we really noticed that
he was playing with a little more edge, a little more grit.

“He’s just an offensive phenom. It’s totally
his decision whether he wants to show that offensive flash and
really make a difference, or he can just hide in the weeds a little
bit.”

Gajic said patience and confidence have been two big reasons why
he has suddenly been the player Michigan expects him to be.
Berenson admitted that Gajic “has had a big
turnaround,” but he doesn’t know exactly why. And
he’s not sure if Gajic will keep it up as the Wolverines
enter the stretch run.

It’s always been more questions than answers with Gajic.
The only sure things are that he’ll keep it interesting, and
that, come up big or turn up missing, he’ll have Berenson on
his case, pushing him all the way.

Courtney Lewis can be reached at
“mailto:cmlewis@umich.edu”>cmlewis@umich.edu.

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