Requiem For a Heavyweight
Berenson Comes Full Circle; Puts Off Questions About His Future
by Tim Rappleye/CHN Reporter
Under the tutelage of the seemingly-timeless Red Berenson, the Michigan Wolverines have been the gold standard of college hockey for three decades.
Going into the 2016-17 season, Berenson had only suffered a single losing season in 31 years behind the bench. The team reached the NCAA tournament 22 consecutive years from 1991 to 2012, a sports record that belongs with Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. And last year might have been the most fun for the 77 year-old-man they called Red, as his high-flying Wolverines rang up an astounding 4.71 goals per game, the most since the Brendan Morrison era of the 1990s.
And if this were a movie, it would be time to cue the somber music.
The Wolverines fell to a dismal 13-19-3 this year, the identical win total of his first season in college coaching back in 1984-85. Four members of the Wolverines' vaunted 2016 power play — Zach Werenski, J.T. Compher, Kyle Connor and Tyler Motte — have been all displaying their skills in the NHL this season. The Wolverines' goal total was nearly halved in the course of one off-season: from 181 in 2015-16 to 92.
The scoring slump affected Berenson’s mood and his energy.
“It’s night and day," Berenson said after his team's season-ending, 4-1 loss to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday. "It was just so much fun last year, we were all having fun, the players, the coaches, the fans, and the offense was a big part of it. There’s nothing like winning, and there’s nothing like losing. We had trouble this year.”
As the clock was winding down, the questions were already formulating in everyone's mind: Would this be it for Red?
After all, Red openly admitted that he figured last season would be his finale, but he wanted to give new athletic director Warde Manual time to fit into his role. And everyone knew this season was wearing on him.
The crowd chanted "Thank you, Red," and as Berenson methodically stepped onto the ice and sought out the coaching staff of the Nittany Lions, he clasped the big paw of Guy Gadowsky, and the two men stayed mouth-to-ear for nearly half a minute.
“I started coaching in the CCHA, at Alaska,” Gadowsky said. “I had the opportunity to compete against him. He’s a legend in college hockey, he’s a legend in the NHL. He’s such a great man, a kind man, he’s so gracious off the ice. On the ice, let me tell you, he’s just an incredible competitor and wants to beat you up really badly. To be able to compete against him at any time, it’s an honor, a privilege.”
History came full circle Thursday night in Detroit. As the hot young coach of the St. Louis Blues in 1979, Berenson coached the first game at Joe Louis Arena. Now, as an aging NCAA coach, he has coached what might be his final game, here at the fading old barn that greatly helped grow the sport of college hockey, and that itself is in its final season of hockey.
“I think I coached the first game at Joe Louis Arena, you can look it up," Berenson said. "It’s been a tremendous venue for college hockey, the exposure and the credibility. I’ve seen NCAA finals here and regionals and so on. The CCHA teams played here, it was a thrill to get here. The slogan was, ‘The Road to the Joe.’ Don’t think all those players who played in Joe Louis Arena weren’t thrilled to play here.”
But with all of that, Berenson sidestepped the ultimate question.
Will Berenson ever coach at the new Little Caesars Arena?
He will turn 78 years old next season. When the question was asked, his mood darkened.
“I’m disappointed that it was an issue, I don’t know where it started," he said. "I can tell you where it is: it’s similar to last year. I’m going to have a meeting with Warde Manuel after the Frozen Four, and we’ll decide what’s best for the program. There’s been nothing decided, there’s been no ultimatums, nothing like that.
"Warde's been busy with the basketball tournament, and we were hoping to be more busy with Big Ten hockey tournament, but that’s where it is, so you can forget about it for now.”
And with that, the giant of the sport, the player known as the Red Baron, and the coach known simply as Red, got up from the Joe Louis podium for the last time.