Forty-two years ago, when Red Berenson played center for the St. Louis Blues, he found himself skating onto the ice during the Stanley Cup playoffs and pondering the realization that he had lived most of his life on the ice.
Back then, the playoffs weren’t as spread out and teams regularly had to play four games in five days, in two different cities. So Berenson was on the ice, all the time, come playoff time.
During the 1967-68 season, the Blues finished third in the Western Conference and qualified for the playoffs even though they finished with a record below .500. Back then, there were only 12 teams in the NHL.
It was the inaugural year for the St. Louis expansion team and Berenson was acquired by the Blues early into the season. Berenson led the team in goals (22) and points (51) that season, even though he only played in 55 of St. Louis’s 74 games.
In the playoffs, the Blues came alive, and thrived — especially in clutch situations. St. Louis defeated the No. 1 seeded Philadelphia Flyers in seven games, winning the seventh game in Philadelphia 3-1. Berenson scored the empty-net goal that sealed the game.
In the second round, the Blues won the series in another game seven against the Minnesota North Stars. The No. 1 seed in the East, the Montreal Canadiens, eventually swept St. Louis in the Stanley Cup finals.
The Michigan hockey team’s run in the CCHA tournament over the past three weeks has its coach thinking of that playoff run Berenson’s Blues made in ’68.
“That’s a long time ago,” Berenson said with a laugh. “But it’s the same. I’ve been through it as a player. I know what our players are going through. And I think they’re in sync with it, fine with it. We’re not walking around with the weight of the world on our shoulders.
“But we know when we step on the ice, ‘Hey, this is big time.’ I think it takes less at this time of year to get ready to play, because you know. You’ve been through it, and now here you are.”
The Wolverines entered the CCHA tournament as the No. 7 seed, and though they hosted a first-round series against Lake Superior State, Michigan had to do most of its heavy lifting on the road. And winning the conference tournament was the team’s only path to the NCAA Tournament for a record 20th consecutive time.
And to do so, the Wolverines embraced the role of underdog, which seemed bizarre for a team that has been in the tournament for 19 straight years. They’re a team that is used to answering questions in February about the Frozen Four, rather than whether they can make a run to close out the season.
On Feb. 25, junior goaltender Bryan Hogan got hurt during a game with a groin injury, then a week later, senior captain defenseman Chris Summers went down with a lower body injury and Michigan was left to fight for its season and pick up the pieces — just like how Berenson and St. Louis fought its way through the playoffs in 1968 winning two game sevens on its way to the championship series.
The road wins over Michigan State in East Lansing sent Michigan to Joe Louis Arena for the CCHA Championship weekend, starting with a semifinal date with Miami (Ohio). And Berenson’s competitive drive wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“We wanted Miami,” Berenson said. “I’ll be honest, I wanted Miami. I think our team wanted Miami. Not because we were over-confident. We didn’t want to be relieved that Miami wasn’t there and now we get to play a lesser team. We were ready for Miami and you saw it on the ice. Our team played with a level of desperation, but I thought we elevated our overall game, offensively, defensively.”
The Wolverines defeated the RedHawks 5-2 on Friday night. Berenson then gathered his team Saturday morning to talk about the NCAA tournament for the first time all year. And his message was short and simple.
“We came here to be in this game,” Berenson said. “You’ve got to do more than be in it — you’ve got to win it. Because that’s the only way we’re going to get in the tournament.”
Michigan went on to beat Northern Michigan by a narrow 2-1 margin, with two power-play goals coming from junior forward Louie Caporusso, who has caught fire lately, scoring 21 points in his last 17 games.
Berenson said he has never coached a team that has overcome more adversity than this year’s team.
And he knows what these kind of situations feel like; he has been in desperate situations before.
“I remember the attitude,” Berenson said. “I think the team talk is important. How our team talks about our game and the other team and so on. The focus is important. You’ve got to be resilient. The game is not going to be perfect.
“We knew, even in the Miami game, they probably had more good chances to score before we scored that first goal. Even though we ended up scoring five goals, had they scored on one or two of those chances, it could’ve been a whole different weekend. ”
Since March, and six wins later over the conference’s first-ranked, second-ranked and fourth-ranked teams, the Wolverines now find themselves in the NCAA Tournament. The first round matchup against Bemidji State this Saturday has Michigan pitted against a team that made the Frozen Four last season.
But the Wolverines have been to hell and back. After starting the season 10-10, Michigan scratched and clawed its way into the NCAA tournament.
The Wolverines’ last six wins have displayed a new team that has seemingly reached the potential that Berenson said he and his staff have expected all along. But Michigan has thrived throughout the CCHA playoffs masquerading as the underdog.
“I think it’s a good role,” Berenson said. “I’ve always liked to be the underdog, as a player and a coach. I think our team wear that mantle well when we’re in that role. I think playing good teams brings the best out of our team. Especially once we get out team playing. And I think they’re playing now. They’re playing hard, they’re playing together, they’re playing the right way.”