When Jack Johnson steps onto the ice for the Los Angeles Kings tonight, he will follow in the footsteps of Michigan coach Red Berenson.
After the Wolverines won the 1962 NCAA Consolation game over St. Lawrence in Utica, N.Y., a representative from the Montreal Canadiens, the team that drafted Berenson, approached the then-senior about joining.
“I remember saying to him ‘I’ll only play if it’s in the NHL; I’ll never play in the AHL,’ ” Berenson said.
After driving through the night, Berenson was in the lineup as the Canadiens took on the Boston Bruins at the Boston Garden and made history as the first college athlete to transition directly into the NHL.
At the time, there were just six teams in the league.
It was the start of the Regina, Saskatchewan, native’s 17-year NHL career that transformed into an NHL great and hockey legend.
“Red went to college at a time when no one of his caliber was playing college hockey,” said John U. Bacon, University lecturer and author of “Blue Ice: The Story of Michigan Hockey”.
Tonight, another former Wolverine will make the same transition. Unlike Berenson, who graduated that season, Johnson has forgone his final two years of collegiate eligibility to sign with the Los Angeles Kings.
Many in the hockey world believe that Johnson’s NHL debut is coming one or even two years late. But few understood Johnson’s loyalty to the school he committed to in ninth grade.
“You didn’t have to recruit Jack Johnson,” Berenson said. “You didn’t have to sell him on Michigan. He and his family, this is where they wanted him to come from day one.”
At the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, the Anaheim Ducks passed on Johnson with the No. 2 pick because of his commitment to Michigan, which he displayed on draft day with a maize-and-blue tie. The Carolina Hurricanes selected him with the next pick and made numerous offers to Johnson throughout his first year at Michigan, pressuring him to sign. Eventually, they traded his rights to the Kings in September.
Berenson commends Johnson for holding out as long he did. When the coach was in school, there were no agents.
“Once a year they would (tell me) that I should leave school, that I would never be a hockey player if I stayed in school and so on,” Berenson said. “But I didn’t listen to them.”
Forty years later, things are different. Berenson says NHL teams have been “all over Johnson.”
“The biggest thing to me was that Red supported it,” Jack Johnson, Sr. said Sunday. “He told him, you’re doing the right thing.”
Johnson is also deciding at the right time.
Berenson now has time to find another player to fill Johnson’s roster spot, and the Kings want Johnson playing with them in the NHL.
“Jack is leaving at the right time for a spot in the NHL,” Bacon said. “Other players have not done that.”
Berenson’s two complaints about players leaving early are when the player doesn’t show a commitment to academics and when the player leaves college to spend two or three years in the minor leagues.
He doesn’t see either of these things happening with Johnson.
Johnson has already registered for spring classes and plans on completing his Michigan degree over the next few years.
“He’s coming back, he’s going to get a degree from Michigan,” Johnson, Sr. said. “That’s the No. 1 thing, too. He promised Red he will graduate.”
It’s often said that Berenson takes more pride in how his players fare off the ice. When Berenson played hockey, most professional careers lasted just a few years. He continually looked to the future by earning both a BBA and an MBA from the Michigan Business School.
His personal experience may contribute to his unyielding commitment to his players’ education.
After winning the 1965 Stanley Cup with Montreal, Berenson drove back to Ann Arbor through the night to be in his MBA class the next morning.
“He knows that as he’s sitting there, his name is being engraved on the Stanley Cup,” Bacon said.
Long car rides have been pinnacle moments in Berenson’s life, and he passes that symbolism onto his players.
When he thinks that one of his players is ready to go to the NHL, he offers to drive them to the airport.
A rite of passage.
He never had the chance to drive Jack to the airport because he was already in Denver.
“Maybe, I’ll pick him up from the airport,” Berenson said. “I told him that. He wants to take me up on that.”