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ON HOLD: The call that birthed the modern Michigan dynasty

Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library
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By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 22, 2012

When you take Michigan’s 22-year NCAA Tournament streak and press rewind — after you see a tiny goaltender transform back into a big one, after Brendan Morrison hands off a microphone in Cincinnati and after a tear floats back into an eye in a bar in Chicago — what you’ll see is Red Berenson hanging up a telephone.

Now press play.

It was late Sunday night in March 1990. Bo had just retired, the Fab Five was a year away from enrolling at Michigan, and Berenson had just finished a phone call that would decide whether his once-mighty hockey team would be relevant again after so many years.

The 2012 version of the Michigan hockey team encountered some bumps, but it waltzed into the tournament. So did the team before it. In fact, since 1990, only one team, the 2010 squad (which Shawn Hunwick led on its miracle run), was anywhere close to the bubble. But in 1990, it wasn’t that easy.

On one end of the call was Berenson, six fruitless years into his tenure in Ann Arbor. On the other was the NCAA selection committee. Ever since it beat Bowling Green in the CCHA consolation game the day before, Berenson’s team, firmly planted on the NCAA Tournament bubble, had been waiting for this call.

***

Six years earlier, when Berenson arrived in Ann Arbor to command his alma mater, the Michigan hockey team wasn’t concerned with NCAA Tournament berths. The Wolverines stunk — stunk to the tune of 39-77-2 over Berenson’s first three seasons. Stunk so bad that Athletic Director Don Canham wondered whether the bottom-dwelling hockey program was worth the trouble.

“There are a lot of people who ask me questions (like) ‘if this didn’t work out with Red, would Canham have even kept the sport?’ ” said longtime Associate Athletic Director Bruce Madej. “I don’t know that answer.”

It was a fair question. The program didn’t win, and worse yet, it wasn’t making money. Madej recalls crowds of 500 fans per game, back when the capacity of Yost Ice Arena exceeded 8,000. Anyone was able to park alongside the arena on State Street after the opening faceoff, walk to the ticket office and buy seats at center ice.

So Berenson put his two business degrees from Michigan to work. When the team needed to attract more fans, Berenson would go to the Michigan Union to personally sell tickets. He called radio shows to promote the team and found advertisers himself. Still, Berenson told The Michigan Daily that if he couldn’t get the program back to where he felt it belonged, he would leave.

“I remember saying when I came here that I’m not going to stay if I don’t see improvement,” Berenson said in 1990.

So, that phone call? It was about more than just the tournament.

***

More than 20 years later, each player’s account of the March day differs slightly. One consistency, though, is that not one of the players can remember who was on the other end of his respective call. Most agree that the first to hear from Berenson was the unquestioned leader of the team, then-senior Alex Roberts.

Roberts had gambled by pledging to Berenson and Michigan. The Detroit native made a commitment in 1985 to a first-year coach and a program that went 12-26 and played in an empty building. And Jim Schneider, then the team’s Sports Information Director, described Roberts as “Michigan State royalty.”

Roberts entered a program unrecognizable as the one that spawned today’s team. The weight room consisted of one old Universal machine. Worse yet were the blanched white helmets. The day before the final game of Roberts’ junior season in 1989, the finale of a best-of-three playoff series against Bowling Green, that changed.

“We came up from practice one day, and we smelled all this paint,” Roberts said. “What’s going on? Did they paint the locker room?

“When we came up and they had those helmets painted, we thought it was a joke. We were like, ‘You can’t be serious.’ This looked so hokey and stupid. We were like ‘Oh my god, this is terrible.’ ”

Michigan lost the series in a three-overtime thriller, but the new-look Wolverines were born, in all their hokey and stupid glory.

By the start of his senior season in 1989, Roberts was the heart and soul of the team. He led the team in penalty minutes (officially), in fights (unofficially), on and off the ice. If players slacked in practice, they’d have Roberts in their face. If the freshmen went out to a party, they’d have Roberts looking out for them. And so most remember that it was Roberts’ job to tell the rest of the team when word arrived from the selection committee.

Roberts hung up the phone. He told the six teammates he lived with the news, made a few calls, and then set out with fellow captain and senior Mike Moes and senior goaltender Warren “Scott” Sharples to their Michigamua (a senior honor society) meeting.

***

Sharples had been anxiously awaiting this call. He had been playing some of the best hockey of his career by 1990, and the only question left in his mind was about which team the Wolverines would play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The goaltender was a late addition to Berenson’s second recruiting class after another recruit decommitted. Still, Sharples earned the job his first year, and by his senior season, he become the first in a long string of four-year goaltenders that spanned all the way until when Al Montoya left early in 2005.

But three years before he got that phone call, Sharples was crying during a practice late in his freshman year. Despite winning the starting job, Sharples went 12-16 between the pipes in his freshman campaign and allowed more than five goals per game. And he couldn’t do anything about it.

“(It) was the hardest season I ever had in my life,” Sharples said. “There were some people there when we got there that didn’t have that hatred for losing that the rest of us did.”

And so at practice one day, Sharples broke down.

“I just could not will the team to win like I had been able to at different levels,” Sharples said. “And I remember a couple of seniors looking at me, incredulous. I knew they were looking at me (and) thinking, ‘Why are you letting it bother you this much?’

“(Losing) didn’t bother the guys that were there.”

But, as more Berenson recruits came in, Michigan started winning. Sharples and his teammates went 14-25-1 in his freshman year in 1986-87. The following season, Berenson’s team won more games than it lost for the first time since he arrived. In Sharples’ junior year — the first team filled completely with Berenson recruits — the team finished seven games over .500.

From the outset of the 1989-90 season, the team set its sights on one goal: Making the NCAA Tournament. By the time the phone rang, after the tears had stopped, after the paint on the helmet had dried, and even after the weight-room renovations were completed, the team was right on the precipice.

Sharples didn’t get to the receiver first. He remembers Moes, the other captain, answering, though Moes doesn’t remember getting the call at home. Sharples and fellow senior Rob Brown leaned in to listen. After the season, Brown would get so emotional at the senior banquet that he would need several attempts to get through a tearful goodbye speech. But right now, he was silent, waiting.

***

Something happened on Dec. 30, 1989 at Joe Louis Arena.

Michigan played Michigan State in the Great Lakes Invitational. Though the Wolverines won the tournament the year before on a game-winning goal by Moes, and despite the steady improvement of the program, Michigan rarely beat the powerhouse from East Lansing. Michigan State beat the Wolverines earlier that December in a home-and-home series by a combined margin of nine goals.

Berenson’s penchant for starting freshmen in the first half of the season, before they had matured, did not help. In 1989, freshmen Pat Neaton and David Harlock each went minus-seven in their first game at Munn Ice Arena.

“I remember getting a call at the dorm from an assistant coach (after that game) telling us not to jump,” Neaton said.

The players dreaded when Michigan State came to Yost. At that time, the arena would fill up about halfway for home games. Except when the Spartans came to town.

“It was 4,000 Spartan fans and 4,000 Wolverine fans,” Roberts recalled. “And you’d have the ‘Go Green, Go White’ chant going on louder than any Michigan things.”

But at Joe Louis on Dec. 30, something happened: Michigan won, and won convincingly, 5-3 — and even that was only after two late goals by the Spartans.

“That sent them a message,” Neaton said. “We kicked the crap out of them. And I think that was a turning point, even though that was at the GLI, that hey, we’re coming.”

Michigan didn’t lose another game in the Great Lakes Invitational for seven years.

Neaton and his fellow freshmen in West Quad had grown up considerably by the time they heard the phone ring. Among those freshmen was Chris Tamer, a hard-hitting defenseman from Dearborn, Mich.

***

Tamer remembers setting goals. Before his freshman season in 1989, the team wrote short-term goals and long-term goals on the board, and then Berenson spoke to his players about going through the wall. Anytime you go out on the ice, he said, you have to be ready to go through the wall. If you go out half-hearted, you’ll get knocked out.

“And then he’d make a fist and punch the old brick wall,” Tamer recalled. “So all the guys got pretty quiet. He didn’t even flinch, he’s slugging that brick wall.”

Michigan was determined to bust down the wall into the NCAA Tournament, but first, it had to knock down some smaller ones. After the Great Lakes Invitational, the Wolverines could check Michigan State off the list. They had sent a message, even though the Spartans won the season series easily. The other big name remaining: Lake Superior State and its abrasive coach Frank Anzalone.

***

Harlock, the freshman, knew Anzalone well. The fast-talking coach from New York had recruited Harlock aggressively before he entered school. But the reason Harlock turned down Lake Superior State was the same reason none of his teammates could find him that March night to tell him the news.

The freshman was at South Quad, across the street from his dorm, studying for a political science exam. Harlock was born the son of a CPA and a nursing professor at the University of Toronto. So when Anzalone’s pitch to come play for the Lakers centered on the fact that Lake Superior State was a “glorified high school,” Harlock’s mother balked. Instead, Harlock chose Michigan, and it was the right fit — he became the first three-year captain in over four decades.

But in the beginning, Anzalone made him pay.

During Harlock’s first series against Lake Superior State up at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. in 1989, Anzalone leaned over the boards — in the middle of the game — and began screaming at Harlock and Neaton, who was also recruited by Anzalone.

“You guys are nothing!”

The Wolverines finished with nothing against the Lakers that year — winless in four tries — but they beat up on the rest of the conference. By the time the CCHA playoffs came around, Michigan was hot, and it easily dispatched first-round foe Western Michigan in a two-game sweep. Roberts recorded the only hat trick in his career that series.

For most of the 1989-90 season, though, a talented sophomore class had carried the team’s offensive production. Three of those sophomores lived together, including Denny Felsner (who led the team with 27 goals) and Ted Kramer (who was tied for second with David Roberts, with 21). But Don Stone, a junior, picked up the ringing phone, as Felsner and Kramer listened in.

***

You could say it was partially Kramer’s fault that the team was even on the bubble anyway, but really, the sophomore was just plain unlucky. After the series against Western Michigan, the Wolverines drew Michigan State in the semifinals, again at Joe Louis Arena. Michigan rallied back to take a 3-2 lead late in the third period, but the Spartans pulled even with just minutes left.

The game went into overtime.

“For me, I’m 42, and I can still feel that game,” Kramer said.

And here’s why: In the overtime period, Moes, the captain, gave Kramer a pass that left him alone with the goalie. Kramer deked. He shot.

Al Roberts threw his hands up. Pat Neaton threw his hands up. David Harlock, Chris Tamer, David Roberts threw their hands up.

And, crashing the opposite post, Mike Moes threw his hands up. The puck was going in — Michigan was going to the NCAA Tournament.

Ding.

Ding.

The puck hit two posts. No goal.

Moes, with his hands triumphantly in the air, couldn’t corral the rebound, even though the net was wide open. About four minutes later, a freshman defender made a bad pinch, and Peter White converted on a two-on-one opportunity for Michigan State. Game over. Spartans win.

The loss could’ve hurt more than it did. But for Kramer, the man who hit two posts, there was no time to dwell on the loss: a consolation game against Bowling Green loomed the next day. Since the Falcons finished just one spot ahead of Michigan, nearly everyone involved described the game as essentially a play-in game, though Bowling Green did go 3-1 against Michigan before meeting in the playoffs.

Michigan rolled to a 5-4 victory. After the game was over, the Falcons players, and their legendary coach, Jerry York, were gracious.

“Players, we can’t really fool each other,” Harlock said. “You know who is worthy and who’s a good player and who’s a good team. When we went through, and we shook hands with all the Bowling Green players after that game, after we beat them in that consolation game, they were all saying good luck in the NCAA Tournament. You know, ‘Hey, we’re going on Spring Break. We haven’t been on Spring Break ever, so go enjoy yourselves.’ ”

And so in South Quad, Harlock, the last player on the team to get the news, was expecting a bid. Neaton and Tamer, the freshmen in West Quad, expected a bid. The sophomores — Kramer and Felsner and David Roberts — expected a bid. The seniors — Mike Moes and Al Sharples and Rob Brown — expected a bid. And their leader, Al Roberts, expected one too…

Berenson hung up the phone.

The committee had gone with Bowling Green.

Michigan did not make it.

***

The news traveled through the phone wires like a wildfire.

When the blaze reached the seniors, Moes felt it like a punch to the gut. Sharples said his heart broke. Al Roberts was shocked, more than anything. At the Michigamua meeting high up in the tower of the Michigan Union, Al Roberts and Sharples and Moes demanded justice. They demanded a reason. They demanded — anything. Any chance to put on the sweater one more time.

Rob Brown locked himself in his room and didn’t talk to anybody.

And so the seniors searched for some explanation that could ease the pain. The popular theory is that Bowling Green’s Athletic Director, who served on the four-man selection committee, swayed the other three members.

“(He) clearly homered them,” said John U. Bacon, a Michigan hockey historian and author of "Blue Ice," a book used for background in this story. “It was an inside job, it was grossly unfair, and Michigan paid the price.”

Of course, Schneider, the Sports Information Director, points out that Michigan simply didn’t win enough games against Michigan State, Lake Superior State and Bowling Green to get themselves off the bubble. But then there’s this curiosity: Schneider, curious as to whether Michigan would get the bid, secretly listened in on the committee’s conference call. The board opened the lines to questions from the media.

The second question, according to Schneider, from a reporter for the Los Angeles Times: “Why Bowling Green over Michigan?”

Rick Comley, the coach of Northern Michigan and a member of the committee, answered. “It was Michigan’s non-conference situation,” he said.

“And I’m sitting there not able to talk, and I’m thinking — see, I don’t remember if we were the only team in the country, at least in the league, to not lose a nonconference game,” Schneider said. “We had swept Boston University, and they were a seeded team.”

“I feel devastated,” Berenson told The Michigan Daily. “I just think we were shafted.”

Harlock felt miserable too — not for himself, but for those who didn’t have a next year.

“(They) don’t get the credit they deserve for turning around the program,” he said. “They were the ones who probably did a lot more of the behind-the-scenes dirty work.”

In Kramer’s house, someone said, “We’re going to have a great team next year. Just remember what this feels like.”

“I am convinced, out of the pain of that experience, the seeds for their 20 years of success were sown,” Bacon said. “They made a commitment that from now on, we were never going to leave it up to some committee of guys we’ve never met.”

And they didn’t. The following year, they won 10 more games than in 1990 and cruised into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1977.

In the first series, the team so familiar with agonizing exits lost to Cornell in overtime in the opening game. In the locker room after the game, Bacon said, the team made a pledge: “We’re not going to let this happen again.”

“The sense of intensity, of importance, of determination (from 1990) was carried forward to the next team that (came back and) beat Cornell.

“And now the modern template for Michigan hockey has been established.”

Sparked by the snub in 1990 and with the credibility from the 1991 tournament run to grab top recruits, Berenson brought the team to the verge of the National Championship game in 1991 and 1992. Each time, those seniors too suffered a painful ending to their careers.

For Harlock and Neaton and Tamer, their ending would come at the hands of Maine in the 1993 Final Four in a crushing overtime loss. The freshmen on that team would be seniors in 1996.

And they would remember.

***

Now fast forward.

Six years after the call that ended his career and sparked the modern Michigan hockey dynasty, Al Roberts gathered with some former teammates and Michigan hockey alumni at a bar in the shadow of Wrigley Field in Chicago. For six straight years, the Wolverines had made the NCAA Tournament, and for the first five years, their season ended with a loss.

In that bar in Wrigleyville in 1996, Al Roberts and the rest of the crew watched as those Michigan seniors, who lost in overtime to Maine, entered yet another overtime.

This time, it was against Colorado College, and this time, it wasn’t for a spot in the National Championship game.

It was the National Championship game.

Three minutes and 35 seconds later, a junior named Brendan Morrison clinched Berenson’s first National Championship with a game-winning goal.

Then, in what Bacon called a clear reference to that 1990 team — to the Roberts and to Sharples and to Moes and Harlock and Tamer — Morrison uttered his now-famous impromptu speech.

“This is for all the guys that never had a chance to win it,” he said.

Guys like David Harlock, who heard the news of Michigan’s victory during an intermission in a game with a Washington Captials affiliate and then played the best third period of his life.

Guys like Mike Moes, who still to this day finds himself wondering how in the world Morrison had the composure and wisdom to think of guys like him minutes after one of the best moments in his life.

And for guys like Al Roberts, who watched, transfixed, in that bar in Wrigleyville.

He listened to the speech, hanging on every word. He felt a chill run down his spine, a lump form in his throat, and then the tears came. The man who had sacrificed championships with Michigan State to come to Michigan looked up and saw the rest of his former teammates and friends.

They were bawling too — a bunch of grown men sobbing into their suds over a hockey game played by kids.

And 22 years after the phone call that sparked it all, Michigan hasn’t yet missed an NCAA Tournament.


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