Red Berenson played his first hockey game against the Gophers in Minneapolis in February 1960. He was asked Thursday morning for a recollection of that visit.
”We were playing in that old barn across the street, of course,” Berenson said. “And Minnesota was right up there at the top for us when it came to rivals.”
The Michigan coach was sitting on a bench outside the locker room area at Mariucci Arena, the home for the Gophers since they moved across SE 4th Street in the fall of 1993.
Berenson took a sip from his Styrofoam cup of coffee, smiled and said:
“It was different hockey then. Mariucci was the coach and John was dead-set against Canadians. We later became friends, but what I remember is John hollering at me.”
Go back to Canada? “Something like that … only more colorful,” Berenson said.
Gordon “Red” Berenson of Regina, Saskatchewan, left Michigan in 1962 and went from there to play 1,072 NHL games (including playoffs) over 17 seasons.
He was in his second season with the expansion St. Louis Blues on Nov. 7, 1968, when he scored six goals at Philadelphia. Berenson and Toronto’s Darryl Sittler (1976) remain the only NHLers since World War II to get six goals in a game.
Minnesota hockey fans who go back to the early days have another recollection: He was part of the Blues teams in 1968 and again in 1970 that eliminated the North Stars in their first two playoff seasons.
“Those were tremendous series,” Berenson said. “The Minnesota fans didn’t care for us, I know that.”
Berenson had started his NHL career with Montreal in the league’s Original Six era. He bounced between the Canadiens and the minors, except in 1963-64 when he played 69 games for Montreal.
There was a brief stop with the New York Rangers, those 3½ years as the popular “Red Baron” in St. Louis, a four-year stretch with Detroit, and then another rewarding stay with the Blues from the middle of the 1974-75 season to retirement in 1978.
All these decades later, it is still the time he spent with the Canadiens that influences Berenson as he puts together the Michigan Wolverines for another season.
“I’ve always preferred a team that plays fast, that is aggressive in trying to create offense,” he said. “That was how the Canadiens played. I always thought they played the right way.”
Red took another sip of coffee and said: “The trap some teams play, that Jacques [Lemaire] played here with the Wild … I know you have to play defense, too, if you’re going to win, but I couldn’t play that way.
“Our goal at the start of every season is to lead the nation in scoring.”
Berenson became an assistant with the Blues after his retirement. He replaced former teammate Barclay Plager as head coach halfway through the 1979-80 season. Red was the NHL’s Coach of the Year in 1981, then was fired near the end of the next season.
Michigan was at the bottom of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association when athletic director Don Canham convinced Berenson to take over the program at his alma mater in 1984.
This is his 32nd season, and at age 76, the close-cropped hair still has a hint of red, and the Wolverines lead the nation at 4.82 goals per game after scoring six times in beating the Gophers on Thursday night.
The rumors have been persistent this winter in the tight world of college hockey that Berenson will retire after this season.
Berenson has 830 victories and a winning percentage of .662. The frustrations have come in the Frozen Four. Red’s Wolverines have been there 11 times and lost in the semifinals eight times. They had a pair of titles in 1996 and 1998, and they lost in St. Paul to Minnesota Duluth 3-2 in overtime in the 2011 championship game.
Michigan lost its superstar, freshman Dylan Larkin, to the Red Wings after last season. “We’ve been losing some outstanding players early, just like Minnesota does, and Boston College, and a few other schools,” Berenson said. “That’s one of the reasons college hockey is so balanced right now. Once you get in the tournament, any of the 16 teams can win.”
Berenson has eight grandchildren. He was asked if the pull of grandkids could lead to his retirement as much as his age.
“The grandkids are into hockey,” he said. “They are around all the time anyway. I’ll just go in and see the athletic director at the end of the season, as I always do, and we’ll talk about it.
“Warde Manuel is taking over as athletic director next month. He’ll be my ninth.”
Ninth what? “Ninth athletic director,” Berenson said.
And then Red walked toward the ice to watch his 32nd crew of Wolverines have a morning skate in the arena named after a hockey man who long ago screamed at Red for being a Canadian.