Michigan legend Red Berenson talks decades in college hockey

Longtime coach brings his Wolverines to Messa Rink tonight.
University of Michigan coach Red Berenson talks to his players during a Dec. 28, 2014 game against Michigan Tech. Berenson leads the Wolverines against Union tonight.
University of Michigan coach Red Berenson talks to his players during a Dec. 28, 2014 game against Michigan Tech. Berenson leads the Wolverines against Union tonight.

Categories: College Sports

Red Berenson is the face of Michigan hockey.

He played for the Wolverines from 1959 to 1962. In his senior season, Berenson led Michigan to a third-place finish in the Frozen Four. He had 43 goals and 27 assists that season.

Following an over two-decade career as a player and coach in the NHL — he won the Stanley Cup as a player with the Montreal Canadiens in 1965 — Berenson returned to Michigan in 1984 as its head coach.

Taking over a struggling program, Berenson has compiled an 812-399-84 record. Under Berenson, the Wolverines have played in 22 NCAA tournaments, reached the Frozen Four 11 times and won two NCAA titles (1996 and 1998).

The 75-year-old Berenson in his 32nd season as Michigan’s coach. With the Wolverines coming to Union on Friday and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on Saturday, Berenson talked to The Daily Gazette about his hockey career:

Q: Today’s college hockey fans know you for your many years as Michigan’s head coach. But many probably don’t realize you were a pioneer in that you were the first college hockey player to go directly to the NHL in 1962 when you joined the Montreal Canadiens. How did your Montreal teammates, who came from the Canadian junior ranks, treat you?

A: I think there was a little bit of everything. There were two or three players I played junior hockey with, so they knew me well and that was good. And there were some that didn’t know me. They looked at me a little sideways because I was coming out of college hockey. Once they got to know me and were around me every day, both on and off the ice, they realized I was no different than them.

Q: Now, it’s no big deal to see college players in the NHL. How important has college hockey been in helping the NHL grow from six teams when you first started to 30 teams today?

A: I’m pretty biased towards college hockey. I like the fact that the kids coming out of college have had a chance to make progress towards their education and maybe get their degrees, in most cases. The acceptance of the college player is at an all-time high. If you look at the NHL draft every year, and this year was no exception with [Jack] Eichel drafted No. 2 overall and he could have easily been No. 1. We had a player on our team [defenseman Zachary Werenski] that was drafted No. 8 overall [by Columbus] and another one drafted also in the first round [left winger Kyle Connor by Winnipeg]. That’s one year. I think every year, you’re seeing the credibility of college hockey go up, and the NHL has to be tickled to death with the emergence of the American player and the college hockey player coming into the NHL.

Q: How has college hockey changed in your years at Michigan?

A: It’s changed just like everything else, just like cars have changed. It’s bigger and better. We have better facilities. The universities have put more into resources. You have nice rinks. You have NHL-size buildings. And with television and exposure now that we didn’t get 30 years ago, it’s a whole different world. The coaching is terrific in college hockey.

Q: When you took over as Michigan head coach in 1984, did you think you would still be at the helm over 30 years later?

A: No. I didn’t come back with any long-term goals. I was coaching in the NHL as a head coach and assistant coach. I had the opportunity to come back to Michigan. I didn’t have my sights set on coaching college hockey, but they caught me at the right time. Don Canham was the athletic director, and he said our program really needs some help and we would appreciate if you come back here and get it straightened out. I came back and was excited, and I’m still excited. I think it’s been a good fit, and I hope it’s been a good fit for Michigan.

Q: Is coaching in college more fun than coaching in the NHL?

A: For me, it’s been fulfilling to coach college hockey.

Q: Is the job still fun? And how long do you want to keep coaching?

A: Not much longer. I’m 75, and I think the time is coming, so whether it’s this year or next year, it won’t be long. Is it still fun? Yes, I still enjoy coming to the rink, but there’s a time when it’s the right thing for me and the program for me to get out of the way.

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Ken Schott at 395-3159 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @slapschotts. Read his take on college hockey any time by checking out his blog, Parting Schotts, at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/schott.

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