Berenson Reminds Pros That U-M Degree is Still the Goal

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To go or not to go? That is the question.

It isn't a Shakespearean question; it is a question that many talented underclassmen in college sports face these days. And when that student-athlete is playing a sport like ice hockey at the University of Michigan, those questions are commonplace.

Head coach Red Berenson doesn't answer the question for the student-athlete at Michigan, but he does help guide them in the right direction.

Berenson is a coach that can give the student-athlete a perspective from both sides of the bench. Not only was he one of the first collegiate hockey players to go straight to the pro ranks, with the Montreal Canadiens, he stayed at U-M for all four years before going to the NHL, then returned to Ann Arbor to earn his master's degree.

"I've told kids in the past if they're ready to play in the NHL, I'll drive 'em to the airport," said Berenson.

In the last 10 days, the U-M ice hockey team has had two players make the jump to sign with NHL teams. While Berenson would have liked to see both players remain at Michigan, he will support their decision.

Last week, junior Jon Merrill signed a contract with the New Jersey Devils. Just a few days ago freshman Jacob Trouba signed with the Winnipeg Jets.

"One of the advantages of staying through your sophomore season -- we don't have many kids leave after their freshman year because they need to be exceptional players to go pro -- is obviously it's a long road to graduate," said Berenson. "The extra 30 hours are important.

"If you go back to Jack Johnson (now playing for the Columbus Blue Jackets in the NHL), the plan for Jack was to graduate from Michigan whether he played four years or not," added Berenson. "We were all hoping he would play four years, but it turned out he was too good of a player, and I think the same is true of Jacob Trouba. He's too good to have stayed and played college hockey for four years."

Johnson stayed through his sophomore year and won the CCHA's Best Offensive Defenseman Award, the same honor Trouba received this past season after leading all CCHA defensemen in scoring.

Trouba was also named to the All-CCHA first team and CCHA All-Rookie team. The 19-year-old defenseman played in 37 games, scoring 12 goals and adding 17 assists for 29 points to go along with 88 penalty minutes.

At the World Junior Championship in Russia over the Christmas holidays, Trouba's skills were on display to an international audience. He won the gold with Team USA and was named the tournament's best defenseman.

Berenson would have preferred that Trouba stayed through his sophomore season but added that the young man does have exceptional skill and "he is fortunate that he will be able to step right into the NHL."

As for Merrill, the decision was different. He is a junior and is much closer to graduation.

Hours aside, Merrill's injury in the exhibition game against Windsor on Oct. 10 gave him the firsthand experience what a fine line there is in the world of sports -- and in life. He suffered a cracked vertebra and missed a significant part of the season.

"I think Jon Merrill has a whole new perspective about hockey and life after that injury," said Berenson. "He injured his C4 and C5 vertebrae and right now, who knows, he could have been in a wheelchair. Instead he came back, had a good half of season for us."

Even with Merrill going pro, Berenson was happy Merrill stayed and the New Jersey Devils didn't push the defenseman.

"The Devils have been really patient," said Berenson. "They could have signed him after his first year. In the second year, he could have left with all the problems. Third year, he had a broken vertebra.

"I think the kid on one side wanted to come back and finish and the other side is excited about the next step."

He finished his U-M career with 11 goals and 36 assists for 47 points, ending this past season with three assists and a plus-five plus-minus in Michigan's 6-3 win at Ohio State on Feb. 23.

Merrill's and Trouba's futures in hockey are bright. Still, Berenson isn't going to let them forget that they both came to U-M to get a degree. They are not going to the pro ranks without getting a constant reminder what they need to do beyond the sport of hockey.

"I went to school in the summer to get my master's," said Berenson. "It is doable, and I have told these players that."

He has told Merrill that he wants to see him back in school during the summer semester, and he has told Trouba to take online classes and go to school for credit hours wherever he plays hockey.

"They will always be Michigan men," Berenson said. "I will guarantee you that both Jacob and Jon will do everything they can to come back to school, take classes and graduate from Michigan."

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