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At 70, Michigan head coach still going strong

Berenson

So here is one way the years have played their games with Gordon “Red” Berenson: His very name’s a lie now.

He enters the room last this day and sits down behind his placard, and right off you notice something, besides the maize-and-blue warm-up jacket zipped all the way to his chin. It’s his hair, that old-school, square-as-a-pocket-protector brush cut. It’s not, well, red.

Seventy years and a thousand-plus hockey games have chased the namesake shade and replaced it mostly with a silvery thatch, which is what happens when you’ve been around as long as Berenson has. A Michigan legend as a player, he began his coaching career in Ann Arbor in 1984, when he was 44 years old. He predates helmets. He predates the Beatles. He predates Bobby Orr and Bobby Clarke and Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky, in fact, began his pro career a year after Berenson retired.

Berenson even predates the St. Louis Blues, for whom he was an original member and once scored six goals in a single game.

They called him the Red Baron then. His players, if they weren’t so in awe of him, could call him Granddad now.

“Best coach I’ve ever had,” is what defenseman Steve Kampfer calls him instead.

“And I’m the oldest coach he’s ever had,” Berenson adds.

Cue forward Carl Hagelin for the punch line.

“And the best skater,” he says.

A few chuckles patter around the room. Berenson smiles, sort of.

When his guys skate onto Memorial Coliseum ice today, after all, it will be the 20th straight season the Wolverines have played in an NCAA regional, an all-time record. They’ve been to 23 Frozen Fours and won nine national titles; Berenson was behind the bench for Nos. 8 and 9, in 1996 and 1998.

Going into the weekend, he was two victories shy of 700 for his career, which would still leave him sixth all time, 44 wins behind Bemidji State’s Bob Peters in fifth. In his 26 seasons, his teams have averaged an astounding 26 wins per year. He is, essentially, Bo On Ice: The guy Michigan icon Bo Schembechler would have been had he been born in Saskatchewan instead of Ohio.

This season has tested Bo On Ice’s powers to the hilt, partly because of injury and partly because this wasn’t his best team anyway. It looked bad for them when starting goalie Bryan Hogan went down, but the Wolverines rallied around backup Shawn Hunwick to win the conference tournament and grab the automatic bid.

“This has been a different year, for sure,” Berenson says. “This team has had to battle; we’ve been literally playing like it’s our last game of the season for two weeks. So I think everyone in our locker room appreciates being in the tournament this year.”

And appreciates the job Coach Granddad has done to get them there.

“He knows how to prepare guys for every game, knows how to treat his players and knows how to get the best out of everyone,” Kampfer says. “That’s what he’s done this year. He’s gotten the best out of us, and I think we’re playing our best hockey right now.”

A couple of seats down, Red Berenson nearly smiles again.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by e-mail at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648 or at the “Ben Smith” topic of “The Board” at www.journalgazette.net.

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