Kornacki: How Berenson Built So Much More Than a Hockey Team
Berenson leads "The Victors" following his 800th career win

April 11, 2017

By Steve Kornacki

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Gordon "Red" Berenson has retired after 33 beyond-special seasons as the ice hockey coach at the University of Michigan, his beloved alma mater.

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He leaves behind 848 victories, and only three peers have exceeded that.

He leaves behind two national championships, in 1996 and 1998, and two Hobey Baker Award winners in Brendan Morrison (1997) and Kevin Porter (2008), as well as 11 Frozen Four appearances, a record 22 consecutive NCAA Tournament berths, 20 CCHA regular-season or tournament titles, and Michigan's first Big Ten Tournament championship in 2016.

Yet, there's one most important accomplishment that Berenson, 77, isn't leaving behind.

That is the Wolverine hockey family he created, and Berenson will always sit at the head of the table when his "boys," some of whom have sent their sons to play for him, congregate at Yost Ice Arena.

"Our program runs so well because we're connected to one another," said Joy Berenson, his wife of 56 years with whom he raised four children. "Without the connection, it falls apart.

"That's what makes this permanent rather than just the (team) goal thing."

Forward Cutler Martin, who has played three seasons for Berenson, nodded in agreement prior to Monday's (April 10) farewell press conference.

"As you can see," said Martin, "our whole team has turned out today in support of Red. He's been so much more to us than just our coach. He's our mentor for life and has been teaching us lessons every day that we will carry with us beyond Michigan.

"He's created a family that is tight and a team that knows the players can lean on each other and their coaches. That's more important than just the games. He talks the talk and walks the walk, and that's why he's a legend."

Berenson realized something central to success while starring for the Wolverines as a two-time All-American (1961 and 1962) and team captain and playing in the NHL for 17 seasons (winning the Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens) and then serving as an assistant coach and head coach (winning the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's coach of the year with the St. Louis Blues in 1981) for five more NHL seasons.

What he found over his previous hockey experiences was that the best teams play for one another, fired by a brotherhood. And Berenson went about building a family unit rather than just a hockey team.

That was never clearer to me than when many of his "boys" came back to support Scott Matzka, the rugged forward who assisted Josh Langfeld's game-winning goal in the 1998 national championship game. A team of Wolverines alumni played a squad of Detroit Red Wings legends at Yost in a benefit for Matzka, who has ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

They broke bread together after the game, with many of the players bringing their own children and spouses to the table, and smiled ear to ear.

Matzka pushed his wheelchair into Berenson's office afterward for a conversation that was both moving and chilling.

"That's the family," Matzka told his coach, motioning outside the door. "That's way bigger than hockey and the team, and it's pretty incredible."

I'll remember that moment longer than any game I saw Berenson coach. It spoke volumes about what one man had created in that rink on State Street.

"The first thing that comes to mind when playing for Michigan is playing for Red Berenson," said Detroit Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin.

The last time I spoke with Berenson for a story in his second-floor office at Yost, which doubles as a hockey museum with trophies, plaques and countless photos, was to discuss one of the top scholar-athletes on his team, defenseman Sam Piazza. He spoke of his great admiration for Piazza and then detailed the importance of getting a Michigan degree to his own life. He got a bachelor's degree from the School of Business Administration in 1962 and a Master of Business Administration degree in 1966, coming back between NHL seasons to get that.

"It's everyone's dream in hockey to have a pro career," said Berenson, "and I was lucky to live that dream. But I'm so glad I came to school even though I still haven't had my first job out of hockey."

I had to chuckle at that comment because it brought to mind just how rare Berenson's accomplishment was of such a long career playing and coaching in the NHL and college, a trek that began when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.

Berenson scored 79 goals in 84 games in three seasons with the Wolverines in an era when freshmen weren't eligible to play. Fifty-five years later, Berenson remained deeply involved in the game he loves.

He never needed a degree to fall back on but knew it made him a better man and a better coach, one who could tell his players about the value of a degree even though he never technically used it to get a job.

"I was prepared," continued Berenson. "I came back and got my MBA, and I think it makes sense. So many players I played with said, 'I wish I would've had your education.' It's just the opportunity to go to school and what it means."

That emphasis on education was central to the family atmosphere. Parents stress that to their children because they want their lives to be as good as they possibly can be, and Berenson was just like that for them.

I asked Berenson on Monday if the hockey family he's built is his proudest accomplishment as the Michigan coach.

He looked out past the rows of reporters at a player who came to him 30 years ago and said, "I like the fact that these players who leave, and there's Timmy Helber in the audience, and he's going to be a grandpa pretty soon. We've got (current player) Will Lockwood and I coached his dad (Joe). A couple of players in the Frozen Four were sons of players I coached at Michigan.

"So, that's a bit of the family at Michigan. I want this to be a big family. I want the players to feel that this is family. Even the guys I came to school with in the late '50s, we're still best of friends and we stay in touch. So, it's a big Michigan family."

"My motivation (was) to help these young guys and help them change their lives and live their dreams. I always felt strong about life after hockey."

He learned that lesson from his coach, Al Renfrew, and never forgot it.

•   •   •

THE WOLVERINES ON BERENSON

We all knew this day was coming and that Berenson would retire one of these years. So, over the past three seasons, I spoke about him whenever I got some time alone with one of his "boys." Here's was what they had to say.

Brendan Morrison

1997 Hobey Baker Award winner, 1996 national champion, 200-goal scorer in 14-year NHL career, businessman, hunting-fishing TV show host

"Red's authentic. He tells you exactly how he feels and lets you know where you stand. And that really helps you mature. He treats you like an adult. He helps guys put things in perspective.

"He tries to drive home the importance of your education, and some guys might move on to play professional hockey. But at the end of the day, you have a long life ahead of you, and what are you going to do then? How will you face that new challenge? And he is probably more proud of the guys who go on to become lawyers and doctors than the guys who just go out there and play hockey.

"We wanted to win the 1996 championship for the guys on the team, the guys who came before us. But ultimately it was more for Coach and what he'd done for the program."

"But the moment I most remember with Red was my freshman year at the Showcase at the Palace of Auburn Hills. We had like 20,000 people there and it was quite the spectacle. We played Wisconsin and they had a good team. I got matched up on one of their better lines and I was a minus-3 in that game and we ended up losing that game.

"I remember feeling not too good about it, and then on the long bus ride back to Ann Arbor, I got off the bus and Red kind of pulled me aside and gives me this stare and says, 'That will never happen again.' I was like, 'Okay, you're right, message received.' That was his way of challenging me to be more responsible defensively so I could be relied upon to be a guy he could put out there in any situation."

"I think his integrity and principles really stand out. He's not a guy who short-cuts things, and what you see with him is what you get. It's his honesty and integrity that sticks out."

Morrison quote

Bob Gassoff

Class of 2001, who went on to become a Navy SEAL

"I hope that whenever his time here comes to an end, I hope that somebody can fill half of his shoes because he's done an incredible job of building not just a hockey program but a culture of solid young men. We come in here, dreaming of doing great things, and we have teachers, we have scouts, surgeons, neurosurgeons, doctors, lawyers, the whole gamut.

"Red really stresses not just your on-ice development but your off-ice development. That's more important to him. When you're a kid, that's not important to you, but he gets it. The big picture is what's going to carry, and you gain a lot of good foundation building blocks here for those things that challenge you later in life."

Gassoff looked at his elementary school age son, Bobby, and said, "I wish he could get an opportunity to play for Red one day. It probably won't happen, but hopefully it will be somebody else here."

Alex Kile

Class of 2017 senior co-captain

"He's a guy who always pushes you. If you're playing bad, he's going to let you know. If you're playing good, he always thinks you can be playing better. So, he's a motivational figure on the bench and has always been someone who believes in you. You have to earn his respect. I'm a senior now, and I've earned more and more respect each year. You have to earn your opportunities with him.

"He's done it all. He's won the Stanley Cup, national championships, scored big goals in the NHL, and so he knows what he's talking about. He's been in this culture for over 30 years, coached two Hobey Baker Award winners, and he knows how to bring out the best in everybody and find your potential. So, I love him as my coach. It'll be different next year to not have him behind the bench with me."

Nolan De Jong

Class of 2017 senior co-captain, on Berenson's greatest impact on him

"It's the maturity factor. You're kind of growing up, and it's always been about hockey, and coming here you realize the opportunities outside of hockey. There is more to it -- even though the ultimate goal is for me to play in the NHL. He teaches you, and sometimes with some tough love, that there is more to being a Michigan Wolverine than playing on Fridays and Saturdays at Yost.

"I've grown up a ton under him. There are some moments when I don't like him so much, and there are other times when all it takes is a little grin from him, and you know you've done a good job. He's not a scream-and-yell guy. If you do something wrong, he's disappointed, but that probably sends more of a message than getting in your face and yelling at you. I can't say enough for what he's done for my career and me as a person."

Steve Shields

Class of 1994, first college goalie to reach 100 wins, 10-year NHL veteran and current Michigan volunteer assistant coach

"You know what, he's a lot nicer to the players than he was to (assistant coach Brian) Wise(man) and me. That talking we got from Coach is a lot different than it is now. The guys still hang on every word he says, and they don't want to disappoint him. So, in that respect it's identical.

"He's focused and he sets the tone, but guys are having fun and enjoying this experience as it's supposed to be. But the best thing he could do as a coach is set a tone on Friday and Saturday that we're going on a business trip."

Kevin Porter

Class of 2008, eight-year NHL veteran (brought Stanley Cup to Yost last summer after winning it with the Pittsburgh Penguins) on what makes Berenson a great coach

"I think he cares about his players. He wants everyone to do well on the ice, but I think it's more important how he treats his players off the ice. He wants everyone to do well at school and graduate. To have his players graduate, he gets pretty happy about that, he gets pretty excited about that.

"He wants his players to do well while they are there, but he wants them to do well in something other than hockey. If they go on and play pro hockey, he's rooting for them. But I think he's more excited about one of his players becoming a doctor or something other than a professional hockey player.

"Every wedding I've been to for the guys who I played with, if Red was invited, he was there. I think that's pretty special, everyone inviting their head coach to their wedding, and even if they do, the coach probably won't come. But I think Red has been to every wedding that I was at that he was also invited to. So, it's unique that he cares about his players so much.

"In between my junior and senior years, when he announced that I was going to be the captain as a senior, that was a pretty special moment. He did it at the banquet with family and friends there. He announced it right there, and I didn't even know it was coming before that.

"We had a short meeting after that, and Red said 'This is going to be your year. We need to you take control of this team.' So, that was a special moment."

Porter then took the Wolverines to the Frozen Four while winning the Hobey Baker Award as the top NCAA hockey player. He scored 33 goals with 63 points during his senior season of 2007-08.

Bill Muckalt

1998 Hobey Baker Award finalist, two-time NCAA champion, five-year NHL veteran, head coach and general manager of Tri-City Storm in USHL

"We went up to Lake (Superior) State late in 1996. I think we finished the year with a 12-game winning streak, and we went up to Lake State and got humbled. It was a long ride home. Red didn't say anything, and he didn't have to say anything. I think that spoke about the leadership. He was so disappointed, and he didn't even have to say it. His body language told us how he felt about us, and I think that's what great leaders do. We wanted to win it for him, and we knew what the expectations were from him as a coach.

"The leadership he had with our group gave us the utmost respect for him. We believed in him and we were willing to do whatever it took -- the little things. As much talent as our team had, we knew we had to play better defensively. Our effort and commitment to team defense had to be better, and at that time of year you are going to run into games where you just don't score five or six goals. If you look at both national championship games, it was 3-2 in overtime. So, getting that big save from Marty Turco or all those little things were a team effort.

"He challenged me at the start of my sophomore year pretty good, and it was sink-or-swim time. But he gave me that trust and 'I believe in you' and confidence. When you did something good, he gave you praise. (What meant the most) was winning the two championships. So, you left knowing you didn't disappoint him and left as a champion. To graduate and go out on top and do everything that was asked of us, that's the memory we take as our senior class.

"He was like a dad to me for sure. He was an unbelievable influence to me in my hockey career. Very few people knew who I was when I came to Michigan, and he made me into a 200-foot player. It helped my game grow, and the whole coaching staff did.

"I always say this: 'The best decision I made in my life was going to the University of Michigan and leaving with no regrets.' I felt like the luckiest guy in the world to be part of that class, part of that team, and part of that program."

Muckalt quote

Marty Turco

Two-time national champion, NCAA record-setter with 127 wins as goalie, 11-year NHL veteran with 2.36 goals-against average, business development specialist with Dallas Stars

"One thing Red doesn't get enough credit for is building a team from the start to the end of the year and making it grow. It's been really hard on him because a lot of his top players have been leaving early. And a lot of those top players would be pretty tremendous leaders come their junior or senior years.

"What Red is probably best at is grooming young men for life and maturing them. That was pretty evident for us. We had the horses to get it done, but you don't win until everyone pulls together. He treated all of his players equally, and he knows the necessity of each individual is so important. He knows how to challenge his players, and I've felt the wrath and was willing to grow. I was told what to be and what not to be.

"If I had to sum him up quickly, I'd say toughness. But I will say that it is leading by example. Red had already done everything we'd done, and his expectations were so high that he let each guy do his thing and trusted him. He created an environment that you wanted to be part of. You don't want to let him down.

"I've never had a coach who put that much trust in his players to get the job done on and off the ice. It was about taking ownership of a team and empowering leaders. You want your son to hang around Red Berenson for four years. He always said that it was so much more important to be a good person and a good son and a good husband and a good father than a good hockey player. And it isn't just lip service. He's happier when the guys who are kicking butt in life come back. Those are the people he loves to be around.

"He had our back and we had his."

•   •   •

They remain his "boys" for life.

"I would say they are like his kids," said Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, who was once Berenson's hockey operations director. "They're not like players. He sees them as: I have a life-long commitment to them. He teaches hockey as life lessons and not as just to win. He knows how to win in life and the effort and the passion and commitment it takes to be successful for a lifetime.

"Our alums have the same feeling for Red that we (former Michigan football players) have for Bo (Schembechler). He cared for you and wanted you to do better, wanted you to do your best. That lasts a lifetime."

Manuel stressed "celebrating" what Berenson had accomplished. With that, I thought of a favorite catch-phrase of Red's when finishing a compliment. He'd often conclude by saying, "And good for him."

What better way than that to tie together all Berenson accomplished in hockey:

Good for him.

Berenson Retiring after 33 Seasons Behind the Michigan Bench
Red Berenson: A Life in Hockey


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