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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.


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