Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson is 71 years old and some have suggested that if he were to win another national title he might finally be ready to hang up his skates after 27 seasons leading his alma mater. But that may not be true because Berenson continues to accomplish something far greater than championship success at U-M ...
Berenson will lead the Wolverines into Saturday night's national championship game, seeking to become the 10th coach in NCAA history to capture three or more national championships, and the desire to win another crown burns in him deeply. Berenson has guided U-M to 21 consecutive NCAA Tournaments but in that time has played for the title just twice (winning both times), in 1996 and 1998.
After so many near-misses during those 12 years, including Frozen Four berths in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2008 (not to mention berths previously in 1992, 1993, 1995 and 1997), winning a third national title would be "justly deserved for a man that is Michigan hockey," athletics director David Brandon said.
Yes, the Maize and Blue won before Berenson arrived for the 1985 campaign - seven national championships in fact - and it will win after him, but you can't think of Michigan hockey without thinking of the future Hall of Fame coach. He has been a tremendous leader for this program as a coach, but in his chief assistant's estimation, as a teacher more importantly.
"If you judge him simply by the wins and losses on the ice, you're missing the point," said Mel Pearson, who has coached alongside Berenson since 1988. "He'd like to win another one but it's more than that. As long as he's still relating to the players, still helping them grow, not only as hockey players but as individuals, I think he'll keep coaching as long as he can.
"The championships are a part of his legacy, and a big part, but not the biggest part. Scroll through the last 27 years and what you'll find are outstanding husbands and fathers and citizens in their community ... men that learned how to be responsible and accountable, and how to realize their very best potential. You ask Red and he takes more satisfaction watching our kids develop as people than he does in raising banners or winning awards.
"Would be easier for him step aside if he wins the national championship? I don't know because as long as he can help these guys grow as hockey players and individuals I think he's going to do that as long as he can and he should because he is very, very good at it."
One look at Berenson behind the bench, stoic, always confident, and you could glean that he's more of a general manager, allowing Pearson and assistant coach Billy Powers to handle the players, but Berenson is very much a players' coach. They might fear him some - respect would be the word he would prefer but trust me, everyone who comes into contact with Berenson, including those he has or continues to work for, is intimidated - but they also very much love the relationship he cultivates with each one of them.
"One of the reasons you come to Michigan is Coach Berenson but you don't really understand what that means until you play for him," sophomore right wing Chris Brown said. "After practice, he'll skate over to you for a one-on-one and he'll talk to you about a move or something that will help your game. He's been in our shoes so he understands what it's like out there and he knows better than any coach I've ever had how to make the little adjustments in your game to become a better player.
"He's a tough-love kind of guy. He's not going to hold your hand but he's there for you whenever you need him. You hear how the older guys that have played for him talk about him when they stop by and you just get the sense that long after you graduate he's going to be just as invested in seeing you realize your potential as he is now.
"And he's been great these past few days. He's calm and he's poised and he gave us the confidence going into that game [against North Dakota] to know we could beat them.
"He has an incredible poker face. He might project one thing to the public but in the locker room he does smile and he's having a good time. I'm sure he's enjoying this."
According to Pearson this has been one of the most rewarding teams Berenson and his assistants have coached in large part because the eight seniors on the roster are ... well, on the roster still. Michigan has suffered more early departures during the past 10 years than any other program in the country and even this senior class watched as Max Pacioretty (following his rookie campaign) and Aaron Palushaj (sophomore year) bolted for a pro contract. Two others - Kevin Quick and Tristin Llewellyn - were removed from the team for violating team rules.
But the rest stayed, intent on improving their games and winning a national championship.
"Red has never stood in the way of a kid pursuing his dream, when he's ready," Pearson said. "But when a kid comes in his office and asks for Red's advice, listens and says, 'Okay, I'll come back' and then turns around the next day and leaves and doesn't even tell us, it really stings.
"So for guys like Louie Caporusso, and Matt Rust and Carl Hagelin - all guys that could have left after their sophomore year or junior year - to come back to finish what they started as freshmen when we made it to the Frozen Four, it means a lot to him and to Billy and me."
And it would mean a lot to those players to give their coach a proper thank-you with a joyous on-ice celebration around 9:30 p.m. Saturday night.
"This is his program. He's created all of this," Caporusso said. "We had our championships in the 50s and 60s, but he is Michigan hockey and we love playing for him. He's done so much for us and we'd love to win another for him."
Berenson rarely smiles. He smirks occasionally, usually when he's expressing pride in commenting on a player, like he did earlier today when relating a story about redshirt junior goalie Shawn Hunwick.
"He has a nice balance between cockiness, confidence and humility," Berenson said. "He is likeable with his teammates. For example, he works our hockey camps in the summer and so he has gotten to know my grandson, Blake, pretty well. Last night, Blake walked in on our team meal after the game when all the smoke had settled to see me and when Hunwick saw him, he jumped up to go see him because that's the type of kid he is.
"He's just not full of himself. He reaches out to other people, and I think that's why the team has rallied around him."
But back to that smirk ... it's seldom captured on camera because it seldom lasts very long. But talk to some of his former players and they can tell you all about a side of Berenson in which he's laughing and smiling like a 21-year old kid all over again.
When? When he's won a national championship.
Perhaps, if we're lucky, we'll watch as Berenson bounces all over the ice again. For 27 years of service in which he has molded some of the finest men the University of Michigan has ever produced, he deserves that.