I began this diary about 4 years ago when it became clear that there were far fewer seasons ahead for Red Berenson at Michigan than behind. In my early drafts, this is not how the story ends; Red retiring on the heels of his most disappointing season since he first took this job 30+ years ago. The story was supposed to end with Red announcing his plans to retire while his team competed for another conference title. On Senior Night he’d receive a 12 minute standing ovation with legions of grown men weeping bittersweet tears, and nobody thinking less of them for doing so. The season would end with Michigan in the NCAA tournament and maybe making another Frozen Four and perhaps even capturing that elusive 3rd National Title for Coach.
Alas, that is not how this story ended, but if you’re expecting a tribute riddled with qualifiers based on how his career finished out, prepare to be disappointed. This diary will not be that, because Red’s legacy is far more than just the past few years. Red’s legacy is that he was the greatest Michigan coach of our generation. With all due respect to Schembechler, Urbanchek, Carr, and Hutchins; Red didn’t just create a state dynasty, or a conference dynasty. Red built Michigan into a national dynasty. For 25 years, when college hockey pundits talked about the great college hockey powers, the Minnesotas, Boston Colleges, and North Dakotas, Michigan was always in that conversation as well. Michigan was to hockey what Duke is to college basketball, what Alabama is to college football. Red made us that good, that dominant. When we look ahead for the football program, we’re not hoping that Jim Harbaugh duplicates Bo’s success, we are hoping he duplicates Red’s.
But his legacy isn’t just about his tenure as Michigan hockey coach. Red Berenson was a Michigan Man before Bo invented the concept. Red Berenson, as a 19 year old kid, rode a train for days from Regina, Saskatchewan to see if he wanted to play college hockey for Michigan in an era where no Canadian hockey player with any promise would even think of that as path to the NHL. Yet, Red Berenson arrived in Ann Arbor, took a look around, and sent word back to his teammates in Regina with the simple phrase, “This is the place.”1
Four simple words that should become the unofficial motto for The University. Who among us haven’t strolled through on The Diag in early October with the leaves crunching under our feet and felt similar? Michigan is special and Red recognized that. Why else would a 45 year old coach leave a promising future in the NHL to return to his alma mater to assume control of a program that had cratered into nothing? It’s doubtful that it was the money, because Michigan didn’t pay coaches all that much in 1984. No, my conclusion is that Red came back to Ann Arbor because “This is the place” was still in him, because Michigan gets inside us, and when Michigan needs you, you answer the call.
Of course, the rest is history. Red took over a program in shambles, rolled up his sleeves, and built the greatest program Michigan Athletics has seen since Fielding Yost. When the dust settled we’d collected 11 CCHA regular season and 9 tourney titles, 13 GLI titles, 23 NCAA tourney appearances, 11 Frozen Fours, and 2 National Championships. There’s a lot of laundry hanging from the rafters in Yost Ice Arena, and most of it is due to him. Our helmets will forevermore have wings. Yost will continue to be one of the toughest road games to play for any visiting team. Fuck the Horseshoe. Fuck Cameron. At its peak, NOBODY wanted to play Michigan in Yost Ice Arena. Ask 2003 Colorado College for their feelings on the experience. Or Denver in 2002. Or Michigan State. Or Miami (NTM). Or Notre Dame.
Soon, Michigan will bring on board a new caretaker for this thing that Red created, this tiny hockey miracle born in the middle of a football-crazed fanbase. Red didn’t have the impact on our fan culture to the degree that Bo did, but Red showed us what being an elite program at Michigan looked and felt like. Not just competitive, not just good, not just great, ELITE. For us hockey fans, Red was our Sinatra, performing his version of “My Way” with a hockey team, and bringing down the house night after night. Monday afternoon was not the way this story was supposed to end, but life usually doesn’t provide fairy tale endings. Still we have the memories, so many great memories; along with the swagger, so much swagger, just waiting to emerge for the next guy.
Thank you Gordon “Red” Berenson for choosing Michigan, for seeing that “This is the place”. We will always be grateful.
1Blue Ice, John U. Bacon