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Ann Arbor — Red Berenson sat in the north stands of Yost Ice Arena several rows below his office, sipping from a cup of hot coffee, surveying the Wolverines and his assistants on the ice.

It was a light practice. His young squad of mostly underclassmen upset ninth-ranked Minnesota twice in the raucous old fieldhouse the previous weekend, and the victors had emerged a bit battered.

As brilliant winter sunshine streamed through the soaring cathedral windows, the coach, who had joined only three others with 800 career victories after the second defeat of the Gophers, appreciated the moment.

"I like that, with all our recruiting efforts, all of our planning and work off the ice, when you come to the rink, you get to play," said Berenson, Michigan's coach for 31 seasons.

"This is the time of day that's best for them," he said of the players, circling in a team skate.

"And it's the best time of the day for the coaches.

"There's a lot of busy work that goes on. But this is the fun part, the practices and the games."

The love of a sport. From junior hockey for the Pats in his native Regina, Saskatchewan, and two All-American nods at Michigan, through a firm grounding in the fabled Canadiens organization of the late 1950s and early 60s, a 17-season NHL career and coaching both in the big league and at his beloved university, Berenson never lost the spark hockey ignited in him.

"I like the speed and I like the skill," Berenson said. "And as far as being a player, I like the competition.

"This is an intense game. It's fast, it's intense and it's physical."

'Level of excellence'

In seven decades of organized hockey, Berenson has won a World Championship, pioneered young Canadian men playing at U.S. colleges, won a Stanley Cup, legitimized a reckless expansion of the NHL, helped Scotty Bowman establish his career and nearly redeemed one of the worst trades in the history of the Red Wings.

Along the way, he led the nation in goals at Michigan and scored six goals, four in nine minutes, in an NHL game.

He also won a Jack Adams Award as coach of the year before returning to his alma mater to firmly establish the Wolverines as a perennial national power.

And now, after two national titles, 11 Frozen Four appearances and a streak of 22 consecutive seasons (1991-2012) in the NCAA Tournament, Berenson, 75, joins Boston College's Jerry York, Boston University's Jack Parker and Michigan State's Ron Mason as the only college coaches with at least 800 career wins.

Mike Babcock had just called Berenson to congratulate him on the 800th win.

"He's a nice guy," Berenson said. "He didn't have to do that."

Others would add their appreciation.

"I've coached against a lot of coaches over the years," said York, whose Eagles have played the Wolverines in several memorable games, including Michigan's 1998 overtime win for the championship — in Boston. "But there's just a few I really respect in terms of how they approach the profession of coaching.

"He truly has brought a level of excellence in other ways than just winning games. He has brought high standards to the coaching profession.

"When you play his teams, they are always competitive. Almost every single year, they are either in the race for the national championship or that caliber of program.

"To do it consistently over a number of years with different players, but the same type of philosophy, that jumps at me about Red.

"Right now, in college hockey, there are three or four schools that are competitive year in and year out, and the red-head has done that with Michigan.

"I just wish he wasn't as good."

Living the dream

For Berenson, there are victories on and off the ice.

In many ways, it all still proceeds from a decision he made in the late 1950s to take a break from the Canadiens organization, despite firm objections from team officials, to attend Michigan.

He said he wanted the education and experience on campus before launching an NHL career — because life is more than sport, even for the best athletes.

"This has turned out to be a good niche for me," he said. "The big thing about coaching at Michigan is I believe in the education part.

"I believe in life after hockey and I want to see these players live their dream, just like I did and all the players after me who have gone on to play in the NHL, or have gone on to medical school and had a dignified career after hockey.

"That's what it's all about."

Luke Glendening knows what Berenson believes it is all about.

Glendening arrived at Michigan as a walk-on, and left after four full seasons, including one as co-captain and two as captain, with NHL potential that Berenson pointed out to the Red Wings, although he remained undrafted.

"Obviously, he was a huge part of my life," Glendening said.

"I think your college years are your formative years, and he had a huge impact on me. He expects a lot from you, but he treats his players with respect.

"I got to go on a canoe trip with him, after my senior year, so I got to see a bit of a different side of him. He's a great guy, a great man and a great coach."

Along his way, Berenson received indispensable training with the Canadiens organization and under Bowman with the Blues when the NHL ill-advisedly expanded from six to 12 teams in 1967.

"It was the way the Canadiens played, the way they acted, their expectations, their professionalism," Berenson said.

"Their management team, the people who overlooked the farm system and everything else — Montreal did it right, they set the standard for the future of the best pro franchises."

Bowman coached the expansion Blues and created a team with old professionals and young prospects garnered through the expansion draft, largely led by Berenson.

"I was lucky enough to play with Scotty and then I was lucky to coach with Scotty as an assistant in Buffalo for a couple of years," Berenson said. "There were a lot of things that Scotty did that were timeless.

"It was discipline. It was commitment. It was work ethic. It was good defense.

"He built his players around good goaltending and defense, and then he knew how to utilize his role players and he knew how to utilize his best players.

"Scotty was as good as it gets, and he got the most out of his players and his teams. If you ask players like Steve Yzerman, he demanded more of them."

Building something special

Midseason in 1971, at the start of a period Red Wings fans would dub "Darkness with Harkness" because of ill-conceived, unpopular personnel moves by coach and then general manager Ned Harkness, Detroit traded Garry Unger and Wayne Connelly for Berenson and Tim Ecclestone.

The then 23-year-old Unger, adored in Detroit, would go on to score 804 points (413 goals) and play in 1,105 games, including a one-time NHL record 916 straight.

The only consolations were Berenson handling it all with the same grace and style he has brought to a long career in hockey, and his determined play amid the declining, post-Gordie Howe era of the franchise.

As Berenson did three decades ago, a new coach in Ann Arbor is moving from the biggest professional league to the campus.

He was asked if he had any advice for new football coach Jim Harbaugh.

"I think the thing about coming back to college, you know why you are here," Berenson said. "This isn't a stepping-stone to someplace else.

"You've been there and you've done that, and now you want to build something special here.

"It's not going to happen in a year or in one game, but you want to build something special.

"I didn't come here to leave, the first time I had a job offered. I didn't know I'd be here for 30 years, of course. But Jim Harbaugh's not here to have a cup of coffee.

"He's here to try to build a dynasty, and that is what we all do."

As for the future, Berenson makes it plain.

"We're down to one year at a time, and right now, I'm just worried about this year," he said. "And we'll see where it's going and what's good for the program."

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

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Red Berenson file

Full name: Gordon Berenson

Born: Dec. 8, 1939 (Regina, Saskatchewan)

Family: Wife, Joy; daughters, Kelly and Sandy; sons, Gordie and Rusty

College: Michigan

Playing career: Juniors — Regina Pats (1956-58). NHL — Montreal (1962-66), N.Y. Rangers (1966-67), St. Louis (1967-71), Detroit (1971-74), St. Louis (1974-78)

Head coaching career: NHL — Blues (1979-82). Colleges — Michigan (1984-present)

Stanley Cups: 1 (1965)

National titles: Two (1996, 1998)

Awards: Jack Adams (coach of the year, 1981)

Honors: Member of the University of Michigan Hall of Honor, Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame and Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame.

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