Behind the Bench with…….Red Berenson

By Stephen J. Holodinsky

If you played in the NHL around the time of the first expansion and you were up against the Detroit Red Wings or the St. Louis Blues, the last person you wanted to see on the ice in the final two minutes was Red Berenson. If you did, it invariably meant that your team was down a goal and there wasn’t going to be much you could do about it. Once his playing career came to a close, and after a short stint in Buffalo, Berenson took his modus operandi to his alma mater, the University of Michigan. There he continued to build upon a championship tradition. Recently, Hockey’s Future had the opportunity to talk with Coach Berenson about the Wolverines and hockey in general in the state of Michigan. Here is what he had to say.

Hockey’s Future: While you had a pretty good season, you can’t help but feel some disappointment for not attaining the ultimate goal of the NCAA Hockey Championships which is to win the Frozen Four. How would you qualify the Wolverine’s 99/00 season in terms of offense, defense, and goaltending and what do you think you can expect next year in this regard?

Red Berenson: I thought our season, overall for 1999/2000 was a good season. Obviously our goaltending was a little different than we expected with Josh Blackburn being injured in an off-ice incident and missing 17 games. Kevin O’Malley and L.J. Scarpace did a good job filling and Blackburn finished the season. Overall, I like our goalkeeping. Our defense was erratic mostly in terms of depth because we lost three defensemen just before school started. Jillson, Peach, Huntzicker and Vancik were the core of our defense for most of the season. Offensively, as much as we were a very young team, we put up pretty good numbers and that was in a large part due to Mike Comrie’s offensive leadership as a sophomore and the infusion of several freshmen forwards that contributed offensively.

HF: Was there anything in particular that you spotted during the tournament that you know needs to be worked on for next season?

RB: Overall the tournament makes everyone realize that your game must go to another level, in terms of intensity, work ethic, discipline as well as the importance of defense, if you expect to be successful.

HF: Leading up to last year, the Wolverines were pretty much a shoo-in for 30 wins a year throughout the 90’s. However in the past couple of seasons you haven’t reached that mark. Is there any particular reason that Michigan has found it harder to put up the Ws as of late?

RB: In terms of winning 30 games, you have to be a very prolific team to do that. There are very few teams in college hockey each season that can win 30 games. Certainly if you do, that labels you as one of the dominant teams. That will be one of our goals next year-to have a 30 win season.

HF: Have all those successful campaigns of the recent past affected the expectations people have for your squad year in and year out and if so how?

RB: There is no question that being successful sets the bar higher and the expectations people have for Michigan now are as high as they can possibly be. People expect Michigan to be a winning team year in and year out and a team that makes it to the NCAA tournament if not the Frozen Four.

HF: It’s noted in your bio that Yost Arena has been sold out for quite some time now and that some of the credit should go to you. How much is marketing a part of being an NCAA hockey coach, and what is expected of you in this regard?

RB: I think every coach is involved with marketing his program and certainly I have participated in helping to promote our team and our game and sell tickets. Obviously, a winning team sell tickets faster than any marketing program. Our team has earned the status of being “sold out” at Yost but we have also had support from our marketing department, ticketing department, public relations, and sports information.

HF: There are quite a few teams in your conference from Michigan. Is there a lot of fan support migration between them?

RB: As far as fan migration; certainly every team brings with them a group of their best fans and when we play teams like Michigan State, Bowling Green, Western Michigan; teams that are closest to us, we hope to generate as much interest as possible. Michigan has been one of the top draws in the league and our fans look forward to visiting opposing rinks

HF: How important is it for the Maize and Blue and hockey in this state in general for everyone to ‘keep up with the Joneses’?

RB: I don’t think that we “keep up with the Joneses” at Michigan but there is no question that there is a respectful rivalry between Michigan and Michigan State. That brings out the best in everyone from both programs.

HF: Who was the player that surprised you the most on your club this season and why?

RB: A lot of players surprise you each season and particularly the incoming freshmen, you are not quite sure about their first season performance. The player I thought as a returning player that played the best and surprised us the most was sophomore, Jay Vancik. He was also voted by his teammates as the most improved. Jay hardly dressed during the last half of his freshman year and never missed a game during his sophomore year. He consistently played at a much higher level.

HF: It has just been confirmed that blueliner Jeff Jillson is returning next year to Ann Arbor. Are there any plans to give him an expanded role, and if so, how will this change the over-all dimension of the Michigan Squad?

RB: Jeff Jillson will unquestionably be a key player for us back of the blueline and I anticipate Jeff’s offensive numbers will go up as well as his defensive consistency. Jeff is developing into a dominant college defenseman night after night and if he can perform at that level this season, he will make a tremendous difference to our team.

HF: Squint Test

When you look at the following players and squint, who do they remind you of in the NHL?

Jeff Jillson: Scott Stevens

Mike Comrie: Scott Gomez

Andy Hilbert: Joe Sakic

Josh Blackburn: Martin Brodeur

HF: Who is that someone we haven’t heard of yet on the Wolverine’s squad who will make himself known in the next two years?

RB: I think Mike Cammalleri has the skill, “the smarts”, and the dynamics to be a player people will hear more about during the upcoming season.

HF: During your career you were noted for being a defensively responsible forward who would be on the ice protecting a one goal lead in the last minutes, and who would score the killing goal (a goal that put’s a team up by two in the dying seconds of a game) on more than one occasion. Who on the Michigan team would you say exemplifies that kind of player the best?

RB: I think we have several players that fall into that category but the one who really stepped it up late in the season and scored some big goals, especially short-handed, and had a strong role on our team was Scott Matzka.

HF: Define the ‘Red Berenson style’ of coaching hockey?

RB: Our coaching style is simple. We want our kids to work hard and have fun and learn something about the game. We give them systems in which they can improvise and be creative by using their offensive talent as well as learn how to be defensively responsible.

HF: You’ve been at Michigan quite a while now and were originally a Wolverine’s Captain. Has hockey changed in Ann Arbor from the time you were a player until the time you became a coach and if so how?

RB: Hockey has changed very much in Ann Arbor with the growth of the game, not only with both boys and girls playing, but there are more ice surfaces around Ann Arbor now. Ann Arbor Hockey Association has grown, the USA under-17 teams are housed here and more colleges in the state of Michigan are playing hockey than ever before. (To be sure) college hockey was big when I played here, but it is certainly bigger now.

HF: Would you have come to the NCAA had it not been Michigan or was this level of coaching one you wanted to get into?

RB: I would not have come to the NCAA as a hockey coach had it not been for Michigan. Michigan has been special to me as an alumnus and a student. I was not interested in coaching any other university

HF: How was your perspective of the game different as a player than it is now as a coach?

RB: My of the game has not changed a great deal. I’ve always believed that the game should be played at a high level emphasizing skill and speed offensively as well as defensively

HF: Is there something you needed to learn in order to coach on the NCAA level, that wasn’t available to you at the pro-level?

RB: I had to learn how to be successful at this level in terms of understanding college hockey, the intensity, the officiating, the skill level etc. It was definitely a learning experience.

HF: Situation Hockey:

You’re up by a goal with 1:12 seconds to play against Michigan State in a near must win situation for your opponents. The Spartans have pulled their goalie and have sent out all of their big guns. The face-off is in your zone to the goaltender’s left. Who do you send out there and what do you tell them?

RB: I would send out players that I trust on the face-off and know that they will do the right thing in our zone defensively. Players like Huntzicker and Jillson on defense and Comrie, Hilbert, Koch, and Matzka would be the type of forwards that I would be looking to send on the ice.

HF: How long do you intend to stand behind the Wolverine bench?

RB: I don’t have any intentions in terms of the longevity of my coaching here but obviously I’m a lot closer to the end of my career that I was a couple of years ago.

HF: Inevitably, when the day comes when you do step down, how would you like to be remembered?

RB: It’s hard to say how you would like to be remembered. My goal when I came here was to help Michigan hockey become a dynasty and although I think we have made some good strides in that direction, we may or may not be there, that will show in time.