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Nobody needs to ask what Berenson did for Michigan

Apr 14, 2017

Credit MGoBlog / Flickr

Gordon “Red” Berenson"  loved the game from the start. When he was a six-year old kid in Regina, Sasketchewan, for Christmas his parent gave him new skates, gloves, and shin pads.

He was so excited, he called his best friend on the party line – at 6 a.m. When his friend’s mom answered, she said, “Do you know it’s 6 a.m.?”

Berenson replied, “Yes -- but this is important!”

He played most of his games outside, where the prairie winds make it feel like you’re skating uphill. By 18 he was so good, the Montreal Canadiens wanted him to turn pro. When he decided to go to the University of Michigan instead, the Canadiens' general manager warned him, “If you go to an American college, you’ll never become a pro.”

Berenson went anyway.

Ninety seconds into his first game at Michigan, he skated end to end and scored his first goal. He scored 78 more, including 43 his senior year, still a Michigan record. He was the best player in the country.

Minutes after his last college game in 1962, he hopped on a train to play the next night for the Montreal Canadiens. With that game, he became the first college player to go straight to the NHL. He also proved the old general manager wrong.

He also became the first NHL player to wear a helmet who hadn't already suffered a head injury.

Three years later, the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup. A couple days later, while they were engraving Berenson’s name on the Cup, he was attending his first MBA class at Michigan, preparing for his life after hockey.

But his NHL career lasted 17 years. Along the way, he was named to six All-Star teams, served as an assistant captain in Detroit and captain in St. Louis, and once scored six goals in one game, still an NHL record.

In his first full season as an NHL head coach, he won Coach of the Year. The next season, he was fired, which shows you what the NHL is all about.

In 1984, he took over Michigan’s hockey program, which was a mess. He rebuilt it, but he did it the right way, which takes longer. He honored the scholarships of the players he’d inherited. He followed the NCAA’s countless rules – even the stupid ones – and he graduated his players.

Six years later, Michigan finally returned to the NCAA tournament – and kept it up for 22 straight years, an NCAA record. Michigan won the NCAA title in 1996 and 1998. Four players on those teams would graduate from Michigan’s medical school. That is how you do it.

And that’s why his players will tell you Berenson was invariably more proud of what they did off the ice than on it. Perhaps that explains why his players maintained a 90% graduation rate, until they started jumping early to the NHL – a victim of his own success.

How did Berenson do it? First and foremost, he knew what Michigan stood for, and he recruited players who understood that by turning the tables on them. Instead of selling them on what Michigan could do for them, he looked them straight in the eye and asked what they could do for Michigan.

52 years after Berenson started preparing for life after hockey, he will actually start his life after hockey, at age 77.

Nobody needs to ask what Berenson did for Michigan. The answer is simple: He did everything he could.

John U. Bacon is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, including his most recent book, "Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football," which is now out in paperback. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.