As much as he loved living life on the ice, Red Berenson figured it had to end some day. Six decades later, it still hasn't, leaving the Michigan coach to assume he can stop worrying about finding a second career.
Berenson, 71, put off signing a pro contract so he could play college hockey and get an education to secure his future. The rink has remained his workplace through 17 years as an NHL player, six as an NHL coach and 27 seasons heading the program at his alma mater, which will play North Dakota in Thursday's second NCAA Frozen Four semifinal at Xcel Energy Center. Not a bad run for a guy who returned to Michigan to get an MBA, just in case he needed to exchange his skates for a pair of wingtips.
After taking Michigan to its 21st consecutive NCAA tournament, Berenson still feels the passion and drive of a man secure in his calling. The other coaches in this week's Frozen Four can relate. Jeff Jackson, who yearned to attend Notre Dame as a teenager, has the once-lowly Fighting Irish in their second Frozen Four in four years. North Dakota's Dave Hakstol fell firmly in love with his profession despite winning only eight games in his first season as a coach, and success has only sharpened his focus. Scott Sandelin would be thrilled to bring Minnesota Duluth its first national title, since the Hibbing, Minn., native understands what it would mean to that swath of hockey country.
Like Berenson, they all share a devotion to the unique character of the college game.
"When I came to Michigan, I was trying to build something,'' said Berenson, who has led Michigan to 11 Frozen Fours and two NCAA championships. "I'm still here, 27 years later. This was something I believed in, and I still do.''
Berenson: Maintaining balance
In the 1950s, college hockey was not considered a valid option for players with NHL aspirations. Montreal Canadiens General Manager Frank Selke, who wanted to sign Berenson as an 18-year-old, told him he never would make it in the NHL if he played at Michigan.
Berenson stuck to his plan, then became the first Canadian player to go directly from college to the NHL. He won a Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1965 and got the call from the Wolverines in 1984, when he was an assistant coach for the Buffalo Sabres. Michigan's hockey program, so mighty during his years in Ann Arbor, had crumbled.
It needed him. He needed a challenge. And even though Berenson never got a job outside the sport, he still believed in the value of combining education and hockey.
"I had no idea how long I'd be here,'' said Berenson, whose 727 victories are sixth best in college hockey history. "But I believed in life after hockey, and I felt strongly that this was the right way to go.''
Since Berenson's first winning season in 1987-88, the Wolverines have won no fewer than 21 games every year, with NCAA championships in 1996 and '98. Their current streak of 21 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances is the nation's longest, and Michigan is the country's winningest program over the past 10 years, with 278 victories.
Berenson has rejected offers to return to NHL coaching to stay in a community he treasures. He has two years remaining on his contract and no desire to step away.
"I want our players to live their dreams, then be prepared for what happens afterward,'' he said. "I wouldn't even think of taking a pro job over this job. This is what I should be doing.''
Jackson: Finally a Domer
As a high school student, Jeff Jackson visited the Notre Dame campus to participate in a debate tournament. That solidified his desire to attend college there, but his family could not afford it.
Jackson got a second chance to come to South Bend in 2005, when the woeful Irish were seeking a new hockey coach. After a hugely successful career at Lake Superior State in the early 1990s, he was considering a return to the college game, but he promised himself he wouldn't take just any job.
Jackson wanted to go to a school that reflected his values and that had the resources to compete at an elite level. He knew Notre Dame met the first standard, and when the Irish assured him they were planning significant upgrades to their ice arena, he knew he'd found his next home. Over the past five years, Jackson has taken Notre Dame to four NCAA tournament appearances -- after it had gone only once in 37 previous seasons.
"I was attracted to the prestige, the high academic standards and the great tradition with athletics,'' said Jackson, 55. "I certainly felt it was the sleeping giant for hockey.''
In six seasons at Notre Dame, Jackson is 141-78-27 with two CCHA regular-season titles, the first in school history. Next season, the Irish take up residence in the Compton Family Center, a $50 million, 5,000-seat arena that is under construction. After years of playing in the substandard Joyce Center, Jackson said the new rink demonstrates Notre Dame's commitment to the sport, which could give recruiting a boost in places such as Minnesota and Massachusetts.
The winning isn't the only thing Jackson has enjoyed with the Irish. Last week, university President Rev. John Jenkins stopped by his office to wish his team luck in the NCAA tournament.
"That wouldn't happen everywhere,'' Jackson said. "People are first here. That's important as far as my values as a coach.''
Hakstol: Always a Sioux
It was the kind of season that would send many coaches running for the exit. In Dave Hakstol's first year as a head coach, with Sioux City of the USHL, his team won only eight games.
An easy escape route opened up about halfway through the season, when Hakstol got the chance to resume his minor-league playing career. He didn't take it. He didn't even have to think about it, which made him realize just how much he loved coaching.
Hakstol never had a year that dismal again. In 2000, he became an assistant coach at North Dakota, his alma mater. He became head coach in 2004 and has led the Fighting Sioux to five Frozen Fours in his seven seasons, adding to a tradition that has been in his blood since he played for North Dakota in the early 1990s.
"That year in Sioux City, it really clicked,'' said Hakstol, 42. "There were a lot of challenges that year, but it was a real easy decision to stay. I had a real strong sense that I loved what I was doing.''
A native of Alberta, Hakstol became steeped in North Dakota hockey lore during his years as a Sioux defenseman and team captain. It isn't enough, he said, just to maintain the high level of success that is expected in Grand Forks. He and his players must aspire to build upon it.
The last of the Sioux's seven NCAA titles came in 2000, long enough to make a demanding fan base restless. Hakstol doesn't view that as a hardship, but as an opportunity to create more history for a program already rich with it.
"Our expectations are equal to or greater than any of those that are put back on us,'' he said. "We're in such a great situation here, with great support from the administration, tremendous facilities and the most passionate fan base in college hockey. I'm fortunate.''
Sandelin: Seeking the title
He knew it was true, but still, Scott Sandelin found it hard to believe. With all the great players Minnesota Duluth had produced over the years, no Bulldogs team had won an NCAA championship.
Sandelin watched some of those teams during his childhood in Hibbing, and he played against others during his years at North Dakota. As coach of the Bulldogs in this stage of his life, he would like nothing more than to fill the void with an NCAA title.
"They came close in 1984,'' said Sandelin, 46, referring to the Bulldogs' runner-up finish at the NCAA tournament that year. "To be the first in school history to win it, it would mean everything.''
When Sandelin took over the UMD program in 2000, the Bulldogs had not made a Frozen Four since 1985. In his third season on the job, he led the team to a 22-15-5 record -- its best in a decade -- and guided it to the Frozen Four the following season. He was named the Division I coach of the year in 2003-04 as the Bulldogs beat the Gophers in the NCAA quarterfinals, then fell to Denver in the semifinal game.
UMD followed up with some subpar seasons, but it regained its footing over the past three years, winning at least 22 games in each. This season already has included one milestone, with the Bulldogs moving into the new AMSOIL Arena. In their third NCAA tournament under his command, Sandelin hopes for another grand achievement this week.
"We've been fortunate over the years to get a lot of really good players in here,'' he said. "Growing up where I did, I certainly had high expectations for this program. This has been a good season, but I won't be satisfied until we've won our last game.''