Monday, November 30, 2015

A Giant's Farewell to Boston

Maize and Blue and Red All Over
Even as he approaches his 76th birthday, Red Berenson stands taller than his officially listed height of six feet flat. For two days in November he resembled a Lutheran minister in his dark suit, striding around Agganis Arena during Michigan’s series with Boston University, austere after his Wolverines coughed up a late lead in the opener, and still unsmiling after his club dismantled BU in the finale. He didn’t know, or seemingly care, that this was his club’s first win at Agganis Arena in five tries. In the last year of his coaching contract with Michigan, this could have been his final press gathering in Boston. In the closing parry, Red was asked what he thought of Boston as a hockey town, and the legendary man finally softened. For all his amazing feats and historic accomplishments, Berenson’s greatest talent might be his storytelling.

“I played my first game in Boston Gardens, it was my first pro game in March of ’62, and that was my first taste of Boston, it was only the first day after St. Patrick’s Day, so it was REALLY Boston.” The presser was wrapping up but Red wasn’t through talking. “The games we played out here have been big games, the national championship game against Boston College in 1998, that was a great environment at the Fleet Center. We played in the old BU rink, and so on. We played on a lot of buildings here, but we love coming to Boston, the competition is good, the teams are good, they’ve always had good coaches.” Red was now being escorted out of the room, toward the team bus, but he wanted to acknowledge the college coaching greats from the Hub. “I remember Len Ceglarski, and Jackie Parker.” His voice trailed off, and he was gone, maybe forever. This required a follow up call to this living legend, a man whose first-hand experience of hockey’s history gives him a Forest Gump-like magic: he has been everywhere in seemingly every era. Although he never played or coached for a Boston team, Red Berenson will always be connected to the city’s hockey history, weaved into the fabric of some of its biggest events. His first taste of professional hockey came the same day he played his last game for Michigan at the 1962 Frozen Four in Utica, NY.

NHL debut at the old Garden
“We jumped in the car and we drove from Troy, NY to Boston and it was a zoo. Like an absolute zoo by the old Gardens because the Celtics had just played that night and they were just coming out of the game, and it was St. Patrick’s Day, it was a zoo. And here I am just a red-neck kid from Saskatchewan going into a city like Boston. And the Madison hotel was next to the Gardens, that’s where all the visiting teams stayed, so that’s where we stayed. And we went upstairs, and we got a room, and then we sat down and we negotiated a contract, me and the assistant manager. I remember telling him ‘I want twenty thousand dollars over two years,’ and he said “$20K? We’ve never paid anybody that much.’ And the average in the NHL was about $9,000. And the minimum was about $7000. I guess the top player in the league might have been making $20,000. Or 25, Gordie Howe or Rocket Richard. So anyway, I got my $20,000. over two years, including a signing bonus, and the next night I played for Montreal, and it was great. I remember sitting in the locker room in the old Garden. They had the visitor’s locker painted black, and it was just like a cave in there. And they had radiators, you know the old radiators? They had ’em against the wall and they were sticking out. So the rookies had to sit against the radiators, it was so hot. I remember looking around at the room and saying ‘Holy…this is unbelievable. You know, Beliveau, and Boom Boom Geoffrion and Henri Richard, Jacques Plante. And they were great to me. So it was a big thrill, I’ll never forget that game. “

“I was playing for the Rangers in his rookie year. We’d heard all this hype about this one player who was supposed to be so good at age 18. And Harry Howell was our veteran defenseman, I think he had won the Norris trophy the previous year. So there was some talk about, there was no way this kid could be that good. I mean Harry Howell won the Norris Trophy. After the first period we were looking around at each other and somebody said to Harry, ‘Harry, forget about the Norris Trophy. You’re never going to win that again.’ This is after one period in Boston against Orr his rookie year.” 

Mother’s Day, 1970. Overtime
“I remember trying to poke the puck past Orr, and he kept it in or I would have had a breakaway, and he kept it in and then he went down low and passed it down and then he jumped in front of the net and got it back. So I’d been trapped and of course Bobby Orr was Bobby Orr and he was special and when he got that puck he made no mistake and it was all over. And I remember big (Noel) Picard, when he knew the puck was in the net when he tripped him but, it was too little too late.  It was a great thing for Boston, it was a tough pill for our team to swallow, but we knew we played hard, we played well. We probably got everything we had out of that team.

1998 NCAA Final, Michigan vs Boston College
“Well, I knew they had the better team on paper. And Jerry York’s team, right there. But I also knew that we had won it two years previous in 1996, and we had a group back, we still had two classes. But we had a big freshman class. In 1997 we were arguably the best team in the country and BU knocked us off, and then North Dakota beat them to win it all. But we were far and away the best team all year and got upset in 1997. We lost a big class, like Brendan Morrison and (Jason) Botterill and John Madden all those guys graduated. But we still had our goalie Marty Turco. And when we went into that game in the Fleet Center, I think we beat New Hampshire to get into that game, we knew were a good team, and had a lot of young guys that weren’t worried about anything, they just wanted to play and have fun.

“As the game wore on, it became a man’s game, really physical. And they were coming at us hard, and Turco was the difference, he definitely was the difference. I think the score ended up 3-2 in our favor, and all three of our goals were scored by freshmen. Josh Langfeld ended up scoring the winning goal. He had a short career in the NHL, and it was a bad angle goal, but you never know about overtime goals, and I think it was in the second overtime. But I remember they hit the crossbar, they hit the post, and Turco stood on his head, and we were playing 4 defensemen most of the game because a couple of our D were hurt. And we had a couple of young guys that we were afraid to play in that game. So it was really a challenge for our team. And I said after the game, ‘The best team doesn’t always win.’ I said that out of respect to Boston College because they were the best team. But the best team doesn’t always win in those games.”

Farewell to a Giant?
The next NCAA tournament, Berenson’s Wolverines were back in Mass., at the old Worcester Centrum for the East Regionals. After a dramatic comeback over Denver the night before, the reign of the champs was ended by top seeded in UNH in overtime. The great man in the signature brush cut and navy suit moved slowly through the handshake line, appearing inconsolable. He’s had some terribly close calls since, but never another ring. Fewer and fewer of his Wolverines stay on campus for extended careers, many treating his beloved University as a mere stepping stone to the NHL. These last two years he has attended the funerals of two of his best friends from the St. Louis Blues, Jimmy Roberts and Al Arbour. As time marches on, the pain of losses always outweighs the joy of victory. He does not hide the fact that this is the last year of his coaching contract. Yet this man who often appears austere to outsiders is both warm and generous to his hockey fraternity.

“Well he’s meant an awful lot to me,” said BU coach David Quinn during the recent Michigan series. “I remember when I applied for my first head coaching job and I asked him if he wouldn’t mind to write a letter of recommendation and use him as a reference. He said ‘A letter of recommendation? Give me the A.D.’s number, I’ll call him right now!He’s been incredible for college hockey, he had an incredible playing career, an incredible coaching career, he looks like he’s 46 instead of 76, he’s sharp as a tack. You know it’s special for me to be able to coach against him. It’s a guy that’s really raised the bar in the college coaching world.”

This hockey giant still gives heart and soul to every coaching encounter. In what may have been his last trip to Boston, he was the first onto the Peter Pan bus at the Agganis loading dock for the quick trip to Logan Airport. He sat up front, across from the driver, hands on knees, eyes fixed, anticipating his next encounter on a hockey journey for the ages.

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