Men who have a certain amount of college hockey coaching experience develop a perspective on the game as their careers progress. Red Berenson, who’s seen — and made — a lot of college hockey history himself, has perspective to spare.
At 71, Berenson is in his 27th season behind the bench in Ann Arbor, and this is Michigan’s 21st consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, the longest such active streak in college hockey. Berenson’s teams captured the national championship in 1996 and 1998.
“I can’t say it’s nothing new,” said Berenson before his team took the ice to practice on Friday, “but it’s inspiring for me to see our team really put out. I still feel like I’m in sync with the players and college hockey. I’m a big hockey fan, a big NHL fan, but I’m not surprised we’re here.”
For the first half of the season, this Michigan team seemed a Frozen Four longshot. With a record of 10-4-3 before the holiday break, with all four of those losses coming in the opening nights of two-game sets, the Wolverines struggled with consistency and seemed to be resisting what they needed to do to win games — hone their game when they were not in possession of the puck.
“Our team has bought into playing better team defense,” said Berenson. “We realized halfway through the season that we weren’t going to live on offense and we had to play better without the puck and give our goalies a chance and so on, so I think everyone’s bought into that and they’ve had some success. I don’t think it’s hurt our offense any, but we’re a better team.”
The result is a team with no 20-goal scorers and players who looked to put up bigger numbers this year accepting their roles as defensive-minded forwards.
“Louie Caporusso, for example, was known as a goal-scorer and an offensive player, and he started to go through these horrendous slumps and this year was no exception,” said Berenson. “Louie bought into the fact that he had to be a better player without the puck because … he had no offensive momentum. He continued to play hard and played better without the puck, and he’s one of our most trustworthy players.
“On the flip side, Matt Rust went through a similar slump this year. He had 13 goals last year and he’s sitting on five, and he was looking to have a breakout year, but look at him. He’s one of our best players out there. He’s a two-way player, a go-to player, faceoffs, penalty killing, power play — he’s all in for the team. I think it’s those guys, when they went through some of that hardship — and the way they handled it, that helped the rest of our team.”
Rust centers Michigan’s third line, the one that shut down North Dakota’s high-powered first line of Evan Trupp, Brad Malone and Matt Frattin, a trio that recorded 69 goals this season. Ben Winnett and Luke Glendening play with Rust — and Winnett and Glendening connected for the game-winning goal against the Sioux.
“Luke Glendening, he came to Michigan like Shawn Hunwick with no expectations,” said Berenson. “I didn’t know if he’d ever play a game and once I saw him on the ice with our team, I realized that this kid’s got something special. He does everything right, he says the right things, he goes through the wall. Off the ice, he’s like a machine, and he’s just a great kid.
“Those are the kinds of kids that set the example for some of those entitled kids. We’ve got a pretty good mix now. You look at a kid like Hunwick — even Scooter [Vaughan], Scooter’s had to go up and down in his career and now look where he is — I think these kids are bringing the most out of each other, and that’s why teams are still playing at this time of the year. It’s because of the team. It’s not because of the firepower.”
Michigan without firepower? Atypical, certainly.
“I’ve seen it all ways,” said Berenson. “If you go back in the last 25 years, I’d say Michigan was the No. 1 team going into the tournament — or certainly into a regional — half of those 20 years we’ve been in the tournament and never got past the first game. So we’ve been disappointed. I’ve lived with disappointments. I’ve lived with unbelievable double-overtime, triple-overtime losses, and then we’ve had a few lucky wins, and last night was one of them.
“I’ve seen it all, done it all. But what’s it like? It’s great. I think there’s hope for senior citizens.”