Berenson Still Cherishes College Hockey As He Enters Hall

January 1, 2019 PRINT Bookmark and Share

A Lengthy Q&A With the Michigan Legend

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor (@CHN_AdamWodon)

Red Berenson, upon being hired at his alma mater Michigan in 1984.

Red Berenson, upon being hired at his alma mater Michigan in 1984.

Red Berenson will be the rare Canadian in the United States Hockey Hall of Fame, when he’s officially inducted tonight during a ceremony in Nashville. Others going in today are U.S. Women’s Olympian and Minnesota grad Natalie Darwitz; Leland “Hago” Harrington; long-time NHL general manager and Northeastern alum David Poile; and former NHL referee, a player at Penn, and current ECAC Dir. of Officiating Paul Stewart

The others are all Americans. But despite being a Canadian by heritage, and an old-school hockey guy through and through, Berenson’s impact on American hockey has been immeasurable, and thus certainly worthy of this accolade.

“It’s nice to see college hockey get recognized,” Berenson said. “When I took over at Michigan, college hockey didn’t have a lot of credibility at the pro level.”

In 33 years as head coach at Michigan, Berenson won 848 games, made 11 Frozen Fours, and won two national championships. But more than that, he constantly preached the merits of college life, college hockey, staying in school, getting an education, and sung the praises of these ideals everywhere he went in the hockey world. He was, after all, the living embodiment of it, having come from Regina, Saskatchewan, yet — at least temporariliy — foresaking the Montreal Canadiens in order to enroll at Michigan. He graduated in 1962 and went straight to the NHL, becoming the first U.S. college player to do that.

Michigan’s program had fallen on hard times when he took over in 1984, but within a few years, it had gotten back in the mix as a major player in college hockey. The team won national championships in 1996 and 1998, and came up short many times after that. It put dozens of players in the NHL. The NHL started picking away players earlier and earlier, and that caused an adjustment period for the programs of its ilk, something many are still struggling to navigate.

But there are certainly no regrets for Berenson about the later years, especially since he continued to help young men get an education and learn life lessons, something that continues to resonate with so many of his ex-players.

He could be tough and intimidating, to his players, his assistants and even to the media. It wasn’t so much with a yell as with a biting remark, or steely glare. All meant to motivate. He expected your best. But no more so than he expected out of himself. He worked harder than anyone, and everyone respected him. And his players revere him to this day.

When Berenson went to Michigan, he did so along with four of his Regina Pats teammates — John Palenstein, Joe Lunghamer, Bill Kelly and Jerry Kolb. In those days, players like that didn’t get pursued, per se — it went the other way around. Berenson wrote to Michigan to say he and his teammates were interested, then-coach Al Renfrew called them up, and the rest was history.

CHN: Did you know you had NHL potential at the time?

Berenson: No, I don’t think so. I was a better than average player. But I don’t think I was a sure bet.

CHN: I ask because I’m wondering if you got pressure or ridicule not to go. Even these days that happens.

Berenson: We got pressured not to go from Montreal. Montreal owned our rights, right before they had a draft. They didn’t like the idea at all. They said, “You’ll never be a pro, or you’ll never get to play in the NHL if you go to college.”

CHN: Even today, many people continue to insist that major junior is a better development path than college, because they play more games and don’t have to worry about school. What do you make of that?

Berenson: I played major junior for two years. That was 50 years ago, but the hockey was good and the hockey is still good. But the thing about college is, I just think it’s a total development model — that’s not just hockey but other sports as well. So you’ve got the weight training and off-ice training. That may not be ahead now, but it was way ahead for a long, long time.

CHN: When people say major junior plays more games, they almost say it matter of factly like, “Oh, obviously that’s a better model.” What do you usually say in response to that?

Berenson: My response is, we play a similar schedule to the European model. The Swedes and the Russians, they don’t play 80 games. They play a more restricted schedule with more practice, more time to develop. And then the games are really important, every game. And it works. There’s no question in my mind that the college players that are good players are more ready to go to the NHL. They still have a combine in Toronto, and they bring all the top drafts up there. And if someone were really honest and gave you the results on an annual basis, in terms of their strength and conditioning type testing that they do, and how the college players fare — I know the answer. College players are more developed. They’ve trained harder in those areas that make them more ready to play with men.

CHN: How did you say no to the Canadiens?

Berenson: I’d talked to a number of pro players from our city of Regina, and I’d asked them about college. And to a man, they all said go to college. Get your education so you have something to fall back on. As one guy said, “You don’t want to be a hockey bum like me when it’s all over.” And the other thing they said, if you’re gonna make it, you’re gonna make it no matter what.

CHN: It still couldn’t be easy, as a kid, to say no to the Canadiens.

Berenson: No, it wasn’t. And you know what’s funny, I called my dad, I said, “Geez, they want me to sign this form and they’re gonna give me $100 to sign it.” I said, “There must be something fishy about this.” But the form was a C-form, and if you signed it you couldn’t go to college. And once I knew that, I realized I gotta watch what I’m doing here.

CHN: You said you’d seen Denver and Colorado College before, so had a feel of what colleges were about. These were bus trips while in juniors?

Berenson: We played them when I was playing for Regina. The former coach from the Regina Pats was Murray Armstrong. He’d been up there a long time, well-respected coach, played in the NHL. Then he went to Denver [in 1956], and he started scheduling the teams from Canada to come down there, so he could recruit [the players], which he did. We played down there, and played in Colorado College, and so on, and we were impressed with what we saw. Even North Dakota at the time. Murray Armstrong was a big influencer for a lot of our teammates to go to college, and he’d been a pro. He sent the same message — you want to have something to fall back on.

CHN: You played in the 1962 Frozen Four in Utica [Michigan lost in the semis], finished and went straight to the NHL. [Berenson later won a Stanley Cup with Montreal, then was back in a Michigan classroom the next day, working on his MBA.]

Berenson: Ken Reardon was the vice president of Montreal, assistant general manager, and Frank Selke was their general manager. But Ken Reardon was at the game [in Utica], and he drove me to Boston. And it was St. Patrick’s Day, and it was chaos around the hotel, the old Madison Motel. We booked in there, the team came in. I knew a couple of the players on the team, but it was all new to me. And the next night, I played my first pro game. [Montreal lost, 6-2. Berenson was a minus-1 and had 3 shots.]

CHN: It’s easy to get cynical about college sports — recruiting is cutthroat, coaches make a lot of money and players don’t get any. People talk about being exploited. But you still believe in it being a good thing.

Berenson: It’s got all of the right qualities in terms of your own opportunities. For example, just getting an education. I was at an event the other night and Murray Howe was speaking, Gordie’s youngest son, and all about the opportunity to go to school. [Murray Howe was cut from Michigan’s hockey team as a freshman, but ultimately stayed in school and became a doctor.] He was at our hockey camp and two of the people he met there were med students. And hockey had been a real good teaching opportunity for them. They were good players, but decided to go to med school, and they think it’s been a great thing for them. And obviously college is different for every situation. But we’re going to have a couple of our players at the induction ceremony, and there’s two guys from our ’97 class. One is Jason Botterill, who is the GM of Buffalo, and look how he combined hockey and education. He was a first-round pick of Dallas, he played 12 years pro, he came back and got his MBA, and he worked his way up in the hockey business. You couldn’t ask for a better career, and he’s just starting another career. 

The other is Harold Schock. His dad was a [professor] at Michigan State, but he came to Michigan, good student, good player, and now he’s an orthopaedic surgeon in Green Bay. But he’s coming to this dinner because he feels good about what’s happening to me and it’s been good for him. And I felt the same way when I came back to Michigan — if I could accomplish half of what my coach did for me, Al Renfrew, and all the guys in my class, then it’s going to be a worthwhile career.

CHN: With the changes in the NHL, the Collective Bargaining Agreement, plus just the fact that players were better and better and being more accepted by the NHL, it got harder and harder to preach that “Stay in School” message. Did that get frustrating?

Berenson: It did. That was one of the tougher parts of our culture, when they start pulling guys out after one year. And the CBA the NHL has — they tried to make it so it would be better for college players, but it may have hurt college hockey by putting that free agency thing in, that if you don’t sign by August 15th after you graduate, you’re a free agent. Well, the GMs are scared to death of that. So right away they come around and start signing the players before they’re seniors, and then before they’re juniors. And in fairness, some of the guys are ready to play — guys like Dylan (Larkin) proved he could play, (Jacob) Trouba, Kyle Connor. We have a few exceptions. But look at all the four-year players that had great careers. Mike Knuble, and (Marty) Turco and John Madden.

CHN: You never hurt yourself by staying.

Berenson: I totally agree. You’ll never regret it. The longer you stay, the longer you’ll play.

CHN: But did you get exasperated by it, or did you just have to accept it?

Berenson: Well, I never really accepted it because I told our players, “I’m going to tell you what I honestly think. If you’re ready to play in the NHL, I’ll drive you to the airport.” And ready to stay there, and not just to play a game. And if you’re not … I told Trouba, I can’t tell you you can’t play in the NHL. I think if you want to go, you go. And I told the odd guy that. But most guys, I told [them that] I think staying is good for you. Good for your maturity, good to get closer to graduating, and then once they get into pro hockey and they realize, you know, there wouldn’t have been anything wrong with staying in Michigan and playing another year.

The good thing is, they still came back. Like, Andy Hilbert came back after 10 years pro. He needed two years of college at Michigan and he did it. And Mike Komisarek came back. He was a first-round pick and he had a strong career, and he came back and finished school after all that time. And I was glad he did. It wasn’t like he made a mistake by leaving early, but it was still unfinished business as far as he was concerned, and good for him.

CHN: I remember when [then-L.A. Kings GM Dean Lombardi] made a remark that you hadn’t developed Jack Johnson well enough. I thought those remarks were silly. Johnson kinda defended you then. I always wondered your relationship with Johnson.

Berenson: Dean apologized about that. He just thought he went off the deep end one day talking about Jack. Jack was a great prospect, but it’s a matter of developing his game at the next level, and it took longer than they expected. But I have a good relationship with Jack, and he came back a few summers and took extra classes. 

CHN: You got your business degree, but the irony is, you never got into business. You played and coached. Do you still feel the degree was helpful in life as you were coaching?

Berenson: I really do. I think it helped me a lot. I took a lot of real estate classes, and real estate law and finance, and real estate management and appraisal and so on. Production management, marketing management. So I always thought when I get in the business world, I’m gonna be a manager or a boss at some level and it will be good for me. And then I got my MBA and got a little more of that. So I just felt better as a person and as a player because I had options, and a lot of our players looking around our locker room [in the NHL] would’ve given their eye tooth for a college degree because they had no choices, whether they had to play in the minors or extend their careers when they didn’t really want to be players anymore. Even Gordie Howe told me about 10-12 years ago, he came over and spent the day with me at Yost, and we walked around — of course he had a soft spot for college and Michigan because Murray went to Michigan, and he told me the only thing I really regret was that I wish I got my education. And we didn’t really get into it, he was a terrific player and so on, there was no chance he was going to get an education at the level he was playing at at the time. But he still regretted it, and still felt he missed something.

CHN: When you were offered the job at Michigan, it wasn’t the first time. What made that time the right time?

Berenson: The first time they offered it to me, I was playing for Detroit. So it wasn’t even near the end of my career year. I played another 3-4 years in St. Louis after that. The next time, I was head coach in St. Louis and I was on a bit of a roll there. So that wasn’t a good time. [Berenson won NHL Coach of the Year in 1981.] But the third time, I was assistant coach in Buffalo and had been there two years, and I liked it, and Scotty Bowman was head coach. I was a little bored, but I would’ve gotten another head job in the NHL, I was confident of that. But this offer from Michigan came and it just kinda hit me at that time that this would be a good challenge for me, and to give something back to Michigan, and it was the best four years of my life, and I’d like to do that. I had no idea I’d make a career of it. And I talked to Scotty about it too, and he always had a soft spot for college coaching. 

I had no idea what I was getting into. I’d coached at the NHL level, and assistant in NHL. And at the time, I was an assistant in Buffalo and we’d just had six first-round picks in the first two years I was there. Housley, Barasso, Andreychuk, and on and on. All these young players. I was working with really high-end players and great prospects. So when I took the Michigan job, I realized, boy, we’re going to have to do all the recruiting and scouting, we’re gonna have to make sure these kids graduate, because not many of them will be pro hockey players.

CHN: You were really doing a sell job there, personally going to try to sell tickets and what not.

Berenson: Yeah, we had to promote it. I was disappointed at the crowds. You could sit where you wanted in the building, and that affects the players too. If they don’t think the crowd cares, pretty soon they don’t care. But it’s a catch-22 too, you have to win before the people come. But it took a while, it was a process. And every year we got better. I thought Michigan should be a powerhouse hockey program, and we became one, and it became a lot more fun. But I had no idea I’d be here 33 years.
It was good for me, and hopefully it was good for Michigan.

[Berenson and his staff, which included assistants like Larry Pedrie, Billy Powers and Mel Pearson, built the program piece by piece, mainly through recruiting. The quality of player they brought in got better and better every year, and by 1990-91, Michigan was back in the NCAAs for the first time in 14 years, winning 34 games. A first-round NCAA playoff series against Cornell was memorable, with the Big Red a big underdog but pulling out an upset win Game 1, before Michigan won the next two, all at Yost.]

CHN: I’ve heard you talk about that 1991 series before, and the way Cornell fans came in there. Was that truly a milestone for the program in retrospect, where the Yost crowd started to become a thing?

Berenson: I think it was a real wakeup call for our fans. When the Cornell fans, they got going, and our fans were — “geez, we never heard anything like that.” And after that, our fans got into it, and then they became a noted fan base, and all these noted things they developed as traditions. But up until Cornell, it was different. I don’t know if it changed our team any, but it really changed our fans and they became a different crowd. It was true.

[Michigan made the Frozen Four three of the next four years, then won the 1996 national championship in Cincinnati, defeating Colorado College in overtime. That Frozen Four was famous for being “un-frozen”; workers broke a pipe under the ice, which prevented it from fully freezing. Players were skating in puddles. Vermont lost to CC in overtime in the semis, despite an apparent hand pass leading up to the winning goal. Michigan routed Boston University in the other semi.]

Berenson: We had meetings before the event about whether they were even going to have the game. And we said, “Let’s try to warm up and see how the ice is.” And then we agreed we would play. Winning the championship seemed to take the weight of the world off the program’s shoulders, and my shoulders. … It was a long time getting there. And in the mean time, it’s all about winning and performance and recruiting, but really it’s the whole package and getting an education, and life after hockey. … I have more friends that are hockey players that graduated from Michigan, it’s like a huge family. I don’t think I had appreciated that enough until it was all over.

CHN: 1997 is kinda a sore spot. [In 1997, almost the entire team came back, and Michigan lost three games all season entering the Frozen Four. It was No. 1 wire to wire.] You played BU in the national semis, and I always say it was the best college hockey game I ever saw. Not for you guys, I guess. But that was a tremendous game, loaded with future NHL players. Can you appreciate that game now in retrospect even though you lost?

Berenson: BU, everything they did that year was to get even with Michigan, because we’d upset them the previous year. And ’97, we were far and away the best team in terms of our season, wins and losses and scores, any way you want to cut it. But I remember [BU coach] Jackie Parker at the dinner the night before, he stood up and said, “Well, this is Michigan’s tournament to lose. There’s no way anybody here has had the season Michigan has.” I turned to our assistant coach and said, “He’s just setting us up.” And our players believed it, and sure enough [BU] got going, and we couldn’t get going. And it was not our best game, not good enough. And they pounded us.

CHN: My biggest memory of that game is Chris Drury nailing Brendan Morrison in open ice. I don’t know if you remember these things specifically.

Berenson: Oh yeah, there were some great hits, and great players on both teams.

CHN: And then at the Hobey ceremony that year, Brendan Morrison won and stood up and made his comment about how the best teams don’t always win. He got a lot of grief for that, even though I don’t think he meant it maliciously.

Berenson: He did. I remember it well. And I said the same thing in ’98 when we won, and I said sometimes the best team doesn’t always win; Boston College was the better team than we were, but we won. 

CHN: When did you have an inkling in ’98 you could win? Obviously you’d lost many good players, but you still had Turco in net. [Michigan won the national championship game in overtime in Boston.]

Berenson: I think it was in the second half. We had 10 freshmen, and we were starting to click. But Billy Muckalt just carried the team on his back. And Matt Herr, our captain, had gotten injured the first game against Minnesota. So Billy took the team on his back, and with Turco in goal and all these young guys, and by the time we got into the playoffs, we were playing four defensemen in the NCAA tournament. Turco was playing great. Everybody seemed to be absorbed in playing their role as well as they could. And we had the Regional at Yost, and that was a big boost. We had to play [defending national champ] North Dakota there. And we were ready for them. That was a memorable game around Ann Arbor, ask anyone who was around. And that got us in the Frozen Four, and after that, we were as good as anybody.

CHN: The last 10 years or so, you guys didn’t quite get back to that level. There were good teams that just fell short or what not, and then it got harder. Is there a lingering disappointment in that?

Berenson: We had some good teams. We started to lose players. The one summer [2002] we lost [Mike] Cammalleri and [Mike] Komisarek, our best forward and best defenseman, and still got to the Frozen Four. And we got upset by Minnesota and [Thomas] Vanek. But we still had good teams. And we had a great team 3-4 years ago, with [Kyle] Connor, [J.T.] Compher and [Tyler] Motte. And we had something going, we had a good run. And the best team beat us, North Dakota was a little older and a little better. And that’s the last team. We had a team in the championship game against Duluth [in 2011]. When Carl Hagelin and that group, and [goalie Shawn] Hunwick, we upset North Dakota and played Duluth and went into overtime. We had occasional runs, but not that stretch. It felt like we were rebuilding or retooling every year with losing those players. And we weren’t the only ones.

CHN: You lost two highly-touted goalies you’d recruited [Jack Campbell and John Gibson], who both bailed out for major junior before they got there, two years in a row. You had a great run of going from one long-term goalie after another, and then it just ended. Did that set you back?

Berenson: No question. We never had that franchise, Turco-type goalie. We had to bring in guys that were young. [Billy] Sauer and [Bryan] Hogan. They couldn’t quite get it done. And it turned out Shawn Hunwick was the best goalie we had in the last 10 years. Al Montoya had two to three good years, a first-round pick with the Rangers. He took us to that Final Four in Buffalo. He was the last real franchise type goalies. And he left early, and you look back and say, was he ready for pro hockey. 

But I have no regrets looking back. We were human, we were like other schools. It got harder, but it was tough when we got there. I had no idea what I was getting into when I started. I thought I did. But it took a few years before we got the program back to where it should’ve been. And after that, we were knocking on the door every year. It was a good investment of my time, helping other kids live the dream, go to school, get an education, and become as good a player as they could. At least they had choices when they were done.

CHN: Scotty Bowman was an influence, how could he not be. You wound up playing for him and coaching with him.

Berenson: There’s a reason it happened. My roots in Montreal, he was one of the coaches for Hull/Ottawa when they sent me down a couple times, and Scotty Bowman was the coach there. And I’d play real well every time I got sent down, and then I’d go back up and hardly played. So eventually when expansion came and the Rangers protected me, much to my disappointment, but nevertheless they traded me to St. Louis early in the season, and ironically the new coach was Scotty Bowman, and he was helping Lynn Patrick as general manager and coach. He gave me the chance to do what I could do. So I really appreciate what Scotty Bowman did for me and my career.

CHN: Were there any specific Xs and Os you remember learning from Bowman?

Berenson: No, I don’t think so. I think it was just, he was a student of the game. And his passion and his willingness to do things and try things. And even when I played for him, he’d come up with a forechecking system that nobody heard of before. We’d pick up the wings, and our centerman would come back in our zone and the two defensemen would forecheck. And we did that in the finals for a while, just to befuddle the other team until they could figure it out. But he was creative and a step ahead of most other coaches.

CHN: You could be intimidating I guess, and even to the student reporters at the Michigan Daily, I’ve seen you talk about how you would expect the best out of them. With young people, were you purposely intimidating?

Berenson: I tried to help them. I like the Daily kids. But I used to remind them, especially in the last few years, if you want to cover the team and you’re going to come and ask me questions, you should know why you’re asking. You should be at our practices, you should know who’s not practicing, who’s playing with who, how come this defense pair is different … so you could become a student of the game, so you could write about it with a little bit of personal knowledge, not just depending on the coach to tell you what he might want to tell you. And the other thing I got them to do was dress up, to come to the game like a pro, to wear a shirt and tie.

I did it out of professionalism, just to help them in their own cause. I told them, you’re in a tough profession, it’s disappearing. So I hope they find their way. They’re good writers. 

You’ve helped impact their careers and development and so on, and now they have families, and some you thought at the time, you thought, gee, he’s never going to get it, whether it’s hockey or his behavior, but they grow up and they mature, and they come back, and you’re just so proud of how they grew up and the person they’ve become and what kind of father, and so on. So it’s been really rewarding. It’s been the most rewarding part of all my hockey.

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