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Five Questions: Berenson a proud host for Classic

by Dan Rosen

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Red Berenson feels like a proud host this week as the National Hockey League has brought its marquee regular-season event to his backyard.

The 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic will take place a block away from Yost Ice Arena, where Berenson, 74, has been a fixture for decades.

Berenson played his college hockey at the University of Michigan from 1960-62, garnering All-American honors in his junior and senior seasons. He returned to lead the program as coach in 1984 and has been in the same position ever since.

His teams have won two national championships, played in 11 Frozen Fours and competed in a record 22 straight NCAA tournaments from 1991-2012. Berenson has sent numerous players to the NHL and the graduation rate of his players has ranked near the top of the NCAA since 1984.

The spry 74-year-old is known around campus as The Ultimate Michigan Man, but his life in hockey includes 17 seasons as a player in the NHL and another five as a coach. He won the Jack Adams Award as the coach of the St. Louis Blues in 1980-81 and spent two seasons with the Buffalo Sabres as an assistant to Scotty Bowman.

Berenson spoke to about his life in hockey, the highlights of his career, and why the University of Michigan means so much to him while standing in the area behind the benches at The Big House on Monday night.

Here are Five Questions (plus five more) with…Red Berenson:

Let's start with your playing days. I've heard that you went straight from your last day playing at Michigan to play for the Montreal Canadiens in the same day. Is that true and what was it like to go straight from college hockey to the NHL at that time?

"Well, I didn't play that night, I played the next night in Boston for Montreal. Some people thought I played two games in one day, but no, I played the next night in Boston. And it was great. It was something that I didn't anticipate, but it was something that I dreamt about. A lot of people told me I shouldn't go to school because I wouldn't be a pro hockey player if I played college hockey, that I'd never play in the NHL and so on. That was my senior year and Montreal had talked to me about signing just about every year I was at Michigan, but I wanted to stay in school and do what I came to do, graduate with my class and so on to be more ready if I was going to be a player. So when it happened it felt like I had done it the right way. I couldn't believe it was happening, but I knew I had done it the right way."

You had a game in the NHL when you scored six goals. In fact, you are the only player to be able to say they scored six goals in a NHL road game. What are your memories of that night?

"Nov. 7, 1968. How can you forget a game like that? It was early in the year. Our schedule had started in mid-October. But it was one of those things, we didn't like Philadelphia and they didn't like us, so it was a rivalry. It was building and this was the second year of expansion. We had some players that didn't like the players on their team and vice versa. I don't know how many goals I had scored early in the year but it seemed like not many because the first goal I scored, I remember saying to myself, 'OK, good, I can still score.' By the end of the night everything was going in. It was one of those games.

"I listened to the broadcast later. Dan Kelly does the broadcast and you can probably find it on YouTube. When you listen to it, it was a pass from the defenseman up to somebody and then it was up to me every time. All of the goals were on rushes. No power plays. No empty net goals. No rebound goals. It was just clean, kind of old-time hockey, coming up the ice to score. It was just one of those nights. It should have happened to a lot of players who were better scorers than me, but it was just one of those games."

You played for Canada in the 1972 Summit Series. What was that like?

"Oh geez, that's a really long story. It was an unbelievable experience. I mean, that was outside the box in every respect because of the politics of the day, playing against the Russians, which the NHL pros had never really played against the Russians. They played junior teams and minor league teams, but they never played the NHL teams. Just the way that series started, wow, what an upset in Montreal. Then as it took shape and everything came together in the end it was unbelievable. But we didn't know that that series would have the legs that it has had. We didn't know it would be as memorable or any of the follow up. We just knew it was a great thing for the NHL to prove that they were a good team and they won the series."

You moved into coaching right after you retired from the St. Louis Blues in 1978. Why did you move into coaching so quickly?

"I didn't want to leave playing. I knew I was getting near the end, I was 38, turning 39, and Emile Francis wanted me to retire. Not just me, I think we had three or four guys on the team that were about my age and he wanted to start rebuilding, but he wanted me to stay and be an assistant coach. That was my kind of carrot. I didn't want to really coach and I hadn't seen me as a coach, but I had four kids and this way it would keep our family in St. Louis. I knew the team and I cared about them, my heart was in St. Louis, so it was a sweet and sour thing to retire and be able to stay and be a part of it."

How was it then to coach your former teammates? How tough was the switch in the relationship for you at that time?

"I don't think it was bad. We had some young players that I really hadn't played with, but we had some older players. The good thing was I made it clear to them by saying, 'Look, I know how good you guys can be, and I'm going to try and help you do that.' They realized there was going to be some social separation, but there was still a lot of respect and some friendship there. Not that you can be a friend of all of your players, but at least I still had friends on the team that I played with."

You win the Jack Adams in 1981 and you don't even get to finish the following season. You get fired, but soon after you were able to move into college coaching and have stayed. Did you ever have the itch to go back to the NHL and try again, and why was college where you found your home?

"When I lost my job in St. Louis, it really hurt me because I was totally invested in the St. Louis Blues at the time as a player and coach and we were building something special. When things didn't go well that year and Emile fired me, I went to Buffalo and I was with Scotty Bowman for two years in Buffalo as an assistant coach. It was just a matter of time until I was going to get another head job, but then the Michigan thing came along and maybe it just caught me at the right time. You know what, I thought it was the best four years of my life when I was there and it just seemed right to give something back to Michigan. I talked to Scotty about it. He thought it was a good idea, so I came back to Michigan. I had no idea I'd be here 30 years later, no idea.

"You asked if I had an itch. Well, I had conversations over the years with NHL teams and I kept saying, 'Have you ever been to Ann Arbor? Do you know what Michigan is like? I think I'd rather be in Ann Arbor.' I'm good with that. I had my time in the NHL. It wasn't like I couldn't wait to get back in the NHL."

What was it like when you started here at Michigan, the program at that time, compared to what it has become under you?

"It was really tough. I mean, our team had been a ninth-place team the last couple of years, but I knew the athletic director and I knew my former coach was the ticket director at that time. They reassured me that if I came back we could get Michigan back on top. That was my goal. I wanted Michigan to be a dynasty in college hockey, kind of be like the old Montreal Canadiens in the '70s, the Oilers in the '80s and the Red Wings eventually in the '90s. That's been our mission."

Were you able to sell the program at the time you took over?

"I was giving tickets out. Everywhere I went I would give people tickets to the game … whether it was the gas station or the grocery store, whatever. You could have shot a cannon in there because there was nobody there, and then 10 years later you couldn't get a ticket. It's been rewarding, really. And I've had a lot of help. It's not a one-man show. I've had really good people around me."

Do you think that staying in college keeps you fresh?

"I think it really does. The one thing I like about it is you're recruiting new players. Like I can't wait to see the young kids that we've recruited come in and work with them and help them develop. I also really enjoy the guys that have moved on and are playing in the NHL. I follow all the Michigan guys as they move on. But as much as I'm proud of all the players, I'm proud of a lot of the kids that have gone on to be doctors and surgeons and you name it. They're really successful people and you've had a hand in some of that, helped them along the way. Really, for me it was the right move to come back to Michigan, and it's turned out that way just like it was the right move for me to go to college when everyone told me I shouldn't."

And you're still playing. You're going to be in the Alumni Showdown at Comerica Park on Tuesday. Do you have any expectations?

"Yeah, I'm still playing. They asked me to play and I said I would. I only play once a year. We usually go to this old-timer tournament in California, but I can still play with guys my age. But [Tuesday] I found out I'm playing with Aaron Ward and Mike Knuble. It'll be fun. We'll have a good time."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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