IT IS 1998 and hockey is dying.
Its executioners are its own coaches, who have strangled opposing offenses with a variety of neutral zone traps. Scoring is down almost two and a half goals a game from the firewagon 1980s. Jacques Lemaire wins three Stanley Cups playing the most stultifying brand of hockey imaginable. At Michigan State, Ron Mason seeks to win games –1 to –2, and does with depressing frequency. Your author is mere months away from swearing off the Red Wings forever after attending two games at Joe Louis Arena at which the only reaction from the crowd comes on goals, of which there is about one a period, and when a man named "Mo Cheese" does a jiggle-dance on the jumbotron.
That fall, two people walked into Yost Ice Arena for the first time: Mike Comrie and I. I sat in the student section; Mike Comrie set people on fire and laughed about it. I don't know anything about Mike Comrie's childhood but I know it involved ants and a magnifying glass.
I just missed the Brendan Morrison era but even if I'd seen it, I'd probably still believe Comrie is the closest thing to an on-ice avatar of the Red Berenson era in existence. He was a tiny puck wizard who defied all logical modes of playing hockey with sheer talent. It was not uncommon for Comrie to make a zone entry by himself, then tool around the offensive zone like Spike Albrecht doing donuts in the lane. The opposition allowed this because the alternative was approaching Comrie and risking an explosive moment after which Michigan would have another goal and you would have no pants.
Over the next decade it seemed like Michigan had an infinite supply of these guys. After Comrie came Mike Cammalleri, Jeff Tambellini, Eric Werner (who belongs on this list despite being a defenseman), TJ Hensick, Andrew Ebbett, John Shouneyia, and Andrew Cogliano. They were all different versions of the same assassin. Collectively they are this Cammalleri goal.
Under Red Berenson, Michigan hockey was an electric middle finger to the neutral zone trap. It defied NHL norms of the time, and sometimes basic physics itself. It took no quarter, and gave none. It lived in Yost Ice Arena, which for about 15 years was the most intimidating environment in sports.
YOST WAS BLACK, pitch black. Literally so. The shot at the top of the post is one of the bleachers that I had the good fortune to acquire when Dave Brandon's renovation of Yost was literally throwing them away. It is not the bright and shiny anodyne chrome of the current building. It is not even the respectable deep blue that Michigan has on hand for uniforms, logos, and what-have-you. It is black.
It is unnecessarily black. At one edge the paint has worn down and you can see that underneath there is a layer of blue. Someone erased that blue, probably for no reason at all other than hockey was a non-revenue sport and black paint was cheaper. So they painted it black.
To walk into Yost Ice Arena in 1998 was a mindblowing experience for someone raised on the relatively genteel ways of Michigan Stadium. To be a Michigan fan is to have your nose in the air about the unhinged activities of those people; Yost was the Scarface coke bender kept hidden from public view. It is the only environment in the history of Michigan sports that can be compared in any way to Miami and its general attitude.
I have thought long and hard about why this might have come to be and still have no unifying theory, but by the time you arrived in 1998 at the same time as Mike Comrie it took about three games to fully assimilate into the baying hive mind. Then-Lake Superior State coach Frank Anzalone once told me to "shut the fuck up" between periods, and while I don't remember why he did this I assume he was 100% correct to do so.
And I was just a guy, really, not one of the gentlemen in the section behind the opposing bench. One of the Superfans was there, the guy with the Flintstones water buffalo hat. Next to him was the guy with the megaphone, and around them was a cadre of the dirtiest dudes in town.
The megaphone, I think, is key to understanding the allure here. We have all had the experience of shouting something in anger at a referee at a football game. This is exactly as effective as shouting at your TV. There are one hundred thousand people in the stands and you are some vast distance away from the field even if you're in row 20; you are just a voice in the crowd.
At Yost, amongst six thousand people, in row ten, with the ears just the other side of some plexiglass, you know damn well that everyone can hear your every word. With a megaphone or without. By the time I had arrived there was a culture that understood and sought to exploit this, and it worked. I can't tell you how many times opposing players tried to spray people in the crowd with water bottles. The opposing parents were seated directly behind their bench, and directly in front of the dirtiest dudes in town, and since the dirtiest dudes in town had a tendency to select one player for excessive torment it was a semi-regular occurrence for a hockey parent to respond in kind. Rarely you'd catch a slightly unhinged one who would fume his way up the stairs and try to get in a fight.
The stupidity and the gloriousness of this should be apparent. For a period of several years the opposing parents had to be located across the rink, the ice serving as a demilitarized zone. Yost got people shook.
The creation of this seething cauldron in the context of dead-puck-era hockey, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is one of the great miracles of sports. The none-more-blackness of Yost had something to do with it. So did the basketball team's malaise.
But the primary factor was Red Berenson, who never gave a damn about what you thought he should do. Berenson spent four years in college when college was not a path to the NHL. He was literally the first player to ever go directly from the NCAA to the NHL. He was the NHL coach of the year at one point and could have continued being an NHL head coach indefinitely if he so chose. Instead he came back to Michigan. At a time when the primary way to win hockey games was by murdering the game itself he played balls-to-the-wall.
Yost was a magnet for sadists because it was a place you could go and see someone blown off the ice 8-1. A promotion where attendees got free tacos if Michigan scored ten goals had to be discontinued because it was costing too much. Here is an arena where the residents are chanting for more goals when they are already at nine—nine! They are no longer beating the dead horse, but gleefully spitting on its grave. Yost was a reflection of the product on the ice.
Red Berenson did a lot of great things for his university, his players, his student managers, his coaches, his alumni, and they will all remember him for the things he did for them. The thing Red Berenson did for me is turn Yost Ice Arena into the greatest sports environment I've ever been in. He did that because he is metal. Bite-the-head-off-a-bat metal.
Black fucking metal.