Kornacki: Coach Berenson Reflects on the Iconic Joe, Ilitch
Red Berenson at Joe Louis Arena

Feb. 11, 2017

By Steve Kornacki

DETROIT, Mich. -- This was the 57th and likely final time the University of Michigan and Michigan State ice hockey teams would meet at Joe Louis Arena.

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And it came down to a first-ever shootout between the archrivals to decide who received the extra point in the Big Ten standings after a 4-4 tie Friday (Feb. 10).

Wolverines defenseman Sam Piazza decided it in the fifth round of the shootout by beating goalie John Lethemon with a top-shelf goal. Spartans winger Logan Lambdin shot wide against goalie Hayden Lavigne immediately after Piazza's goal to end the shootout.

That earned Michigan a second point in the Big Ten standings and the right to claim the "Iron D" trophy. Captain Nolan De Jong, who scored the game-tying and go-ahead goals, skated over to claim the trophy off a table near the goal and brought it back to his teammates standing along the blue line.

"I was very happy," said De Jong. "Last year, we had a really good season (winning the Big Ten Tournament) but losing the 'Iron D' was in the back of our minds because State made it look like they won the Stanley Cup.

"But we won it and showed we weren't going to back down. We know that the 'Iron D' is not the end all, and we know we have a game with them Saturday (Feb. 11 at Yost Ice Arena)."

It was an emotional night at the iconic hockey venue on the banks of the Detroit River. Word spread through the crowd that Mike Ilitch, whose Detroit Red Wings are moving into a new arena next season, had passed away Friday at a local hospital.

Michigan coach Red Berenson was asked about Ilitch, 87, and recalled interviewing for the Red Wings head coaching position with Ilitch that ended up going to Nick Polano in 1982.

"I feel terrible about Mike Ilitch," said Berenson. "I interviewed for the Red Wings job years ago when I was cut loose from St. Louis and spent the day with Mike Ilitch and his family. What a first-class group they were.

"And we always had a friendship after that, and he had family that went to Michigan and had some ties at Michigan. He would call me from time to time and talk about hockey or talk about Michigan. So, what a great person, what a great resume in sports."

Berenson won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL Coach of the Year in 1981 with the St. Louis Blues but lost the job the next season. He came to Michigan two years after getting passed over by the Red Wings and has won 844 games and two NCAA championships since.

Denise Ilitch, the daughter of the long-time owner of the Red Wings and Detroit Tigers, is a member of the University of Michigan Board of Regents.

The "Duel in the D," as the game is now billed, continued a string of tight games between the rival schools.

The Wolverines have won one overtime game (at Joe Louis Arena Dec. 30 in the Great Lakes Invitational) and two shootouts against the Spartans this season.

De Jong saw to it that his team had a chance to close out the "Duel in the D" in winning fashion. The senior defenseman doubled his career goal total by netting a pair.

"Good for Nolan," said Berenson. "Nolan got a couple through, and they ended up going in the net. So, it's important."

De Jong, who did not score until this season and entered this game with two goals, tied the score, 3-3, with a wrist shot 16:05 into the second period on a power play.

His go-ahead goal came 2:40 into the third period. Joseph Cecconi, his defensive partner, threaded a great pass back to De Jong, who fired a shot past Lethemon from out front.

"It was a lot of hard work," said De Jong. "Luke Martin did a really good job of managing the puck out top (on the first goal). ... I just managed to find an (open) lane and the puck went in the net.

"On the second one, Joe Cecconi made a great pass. He put it right on my stick and I scored."

However, the Spartans scored late the third period to force overtime.

Michigan's Jake Slaker made it 1-1 in the shootout, but the next five shooters all either missed the goal or were stopped before Piazza scored. The junior from Darien, Illinois, has six goals and 13 points this season.

"I liked that goal," said Berenson. "Sam's been our best scoring defenseman all year, and we felt good about putting him out there. He's got a lot of patience and skill, and fortunately scored."

Piazza said, "It was a pretty good feeling. I haven't taken a shootout like that since junior (league) hockey. It was my first college shootout, and I used the same move I did back then and it worked out for me. So, it was pretty exciting."

Joe Louis Arena
Joe Louis Arena

There have been plenty of memorable meetings here with the Spartans, and Wolverines won championship games in the old Central Collegiate Hockey Association by beating MSU 3-2 in 1997 and 3-1 in 2002.

That game in 2002 was the last matchup between Berenson and Ron Mason, the MSU coach who along with Berenson are two of only four college coaches to exceed 800 wins.

Michigan has a 31-20-6 advantage in games with its archrival at "The Joe," which is named for Detroit boxing champion Joe Louis. Many of the games came in the Great Lakes Invitational held annually.

"The Ilitches were the ones who were supportive of the GLI and the Michigan-Michigan State series (at Joe Louis) whether it drew well or not," said Berenson. "It wasn't a money-maker; it was doing the right thing for college hockey. So, Mike Ilitch and (wife) Marian) were so good for college hockey and Detroit."

The only way the two schools likely will meet again at this arena is if they both pull upsets en route to a Big Ten Tournament championship game here next month. The Wolverines (9-13-3, 2-7-2-2 Big Ten) and Spartans (5-17-3, 1-8-2-0) are the bottom two teams in the six-team conference.

The Detroit Red Wings will open next season at brand new Little Caesars Arena across Interstate-75 from Comerica Park.

Berenson quickly dismissed any talk about this being the last time the two rivals played at Joe Louis.

"We might be playing them," said Berenson of the tourney possibility. "So, let's move forward. It was a big game for both teams. The crowd (17,720 fans) was great. It was a great event for the players.

"The great thing about playing at Joe Louis is you get an opportunity for both schools to come to the game and support their team. Both schools can bring their band. Both schools can bring their fans, and it's a great environment. ... It's not a home game for anyone, really."

U-M Brings Home Iron D Trophy in Shootout Thriller

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