UM’s Red Berenson faces critical series, decision on future

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Red Berenson

Ann Arbor – Red Berenson continued to say little about his future as head hockey coach at Michigan, but this weekend could be his final time behind the bench at Yost Arena in the Wolverines’ final regular-season series against Penn State.

Berenson, 76, is in the final year of his contract and busy trying to find a way to end the Wolverines’ three-game losing streak.

Berenson knows the No. 9 Wolverines (20-7-5, 10-5-3) must end the losing skid to earn the important bye for next weekend’s Big Ten tournament in Minnesota. The top two teams earn byes into the March 18 semifinals.

Michigan trails league-leading Minnesota by four points, but also leads third-place Penn State (20-10-4, 10-7-1) by three. The Wolverines would more than likely punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012 with a sweep of the Nittany Lions. They swept Penn State in late January, 7-4 and 6-3.

“There’s obviously a lot at stake,” said Berenson, who guided the Wolverines to national championships in 1996 and 1998 and to the national title game in 2011. “Sometimes the last games of the year don’t mean anything to either team, but they mean a lot to both teams (this year). So we have to be at our best, better than last weekend.

“We want to take a step forward (this weekend). We don’t want to be backing into anything. We want to go in there (Big Ten, NCAA tournaments) with some momentum and confidence.

As for his future, Berenson said: “I had a meeting with (new AD Warde Manuel) two weeks ago and we agreed to meet after the season.”

Berenson said he’s not leaning one way – toward coming back or retiring.

“No, I’m not really,” he said. “So we’ll have a good talk when the smoke clears.”

The Wolverines were having a great season, before dropping three of their last four games.

Still, Michigan is leading the nation in scoring (4.72) and showcases the top scorer in freshman Kyle Connor (26 goals, 57 points), top goal scorer in junior Tyler Motte (29 goals) and top playmaker in junior JT Compher (37 assists). But defense has been a problem, getting swept last weekend at the hands of Ohio State – 7-4 and 6-5 in OT -- with Steve Racine in goal each night.

“I’m not concerned with our goalie, I’m concerned with our team defense,” said Berenson. “We have to play better defensively so part of it’s on our defense, part of it’s on our forwards coming back and part of it is the way we’re playing as a group -- whether it’s the intensity, the physicality, the urgency. I mean, we scored nine goals during the weekend and had nothing to show for it.”

Michigan’s players, young enough to be Berenson’s grandchildren, have tremendous respect for him, a reason sophomore Zach Werenski – a first-round draft pick of Columbus (2015) – is considering coming back for his junior year.

Werenski, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound defenseman, knows he can learn a lot from Berenson to prepare him for life in the NHL.

“There were some things I needed to work on, the physicality, being in the right position on a consistent basis,” said Werenski, who is from Grosse Pointe. “I’m not thinking about next year; just working hard on getting better, helping us get better as a team because we want to play in the NCAA tournament. That’s something none of us here have done and that’s important.”

The talk with Berenson and Manuel should be an interesting one. They have a good relationship, dating to Manuel’s previous time in Ann Arbor. Manuel, who has three degrees from Michigan, held several jobs in the UM athletic department from 1996-2005.

“I have good memories of Warde and we have a good history and he’s familiar with our program since he was my administrator for some time,” said Berenson in February, when Manuel was announced as Michigan’s new athletic director.

If Berenson does move on, another coach Manuel has a history with is Mel Pearson, and he seems like a coach who could do well while replacing a legendary figure.

Pearson – the former assistant under Berenson for 23 years – has been head coach at Michigan Tech for five seasons. He took over a 4-30-4 program and led the Huskies to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 34 years last season. The Huskies also won the MacNaughton Cup – awarded to the WCHA regular season champions – for the first time in 40 years this season.

Pearson, 57, clearly has done an outstanding job of turning Tech’s program around and the No. 13 Huskies (21-8-5) enter the WCHA playoffs this weekend as the hottest team in college hockey with a 10-1-3 record since the calendar flipped to 2016.