Column: Red’s Tough Skate to Success

For Berenson, Big Chill game reflects impressive career
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

On Saturday, more than 100,000 frozen fans will watch Michigan play Michigan State at the Big House. Not in football, which happens every other year. But in hockey, thus setting the record for the biggest crowd ever to watch a hockey game – anywhere.

To build a hockey rink on a football field, a six-man crew works for three weeks. First, they install the floor out of big plastic tiles called Terratrak, which were originally designed to create portable runways for fighter jets in the desert. If they can handle F-15s, they can handle Bauer Supremes. Then they put up the boards, the glass, and start flooding the rink with some 40,000 gallons of water.

Don’t worry – these guys have built rinks in San Diego and Mexico City. For them, Michigan’s a skate in the park.

The game will be televised by the Big Ten Network, and will receive worldwide attention. Lawrence Kasdan, the Michigan alum who wrote and directed the classic movie “The Big Chill,” will drop the opening puck. And every time Michigan scores, fireworks will fly.

But that’s not the most impressive part.

No, for that you have to go back to 1984, coach Red Berenson’s first season behind the Michigan bench. The Wolverines were drawing the smallest crowds in the history of Yost Arena, just three thousand a night – not even half the capacity. Berenson was so desperate to increase the crowd, on Friday afternoons he would walk up State Street to the Diag with a wad of tickets for that night’s game, and actually try to give them away. More surprising: it didn’t work.

In Berenson’s first year, the average attendance increased by a total ten people. Ten. Few people wanted those tickets – and even fewer recognized the guy trying to give them away.

But if they knew anything about hockey, they would have.

Berenson was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, but blew off the Montreal Canadiens to attend Michigan – unheard of at the time. He set almost every school scoring record, while earning a business degree – the best years of his life, he says.

The ones that followed weren’t too bad, either. He was the first college player to jump straight to the NHL, where he spent 17 years as a player, and four more as a coach. But he knew it was a business, a point hammered home when he earned NHL’s coach of the year honors in 1980, and a pink slip in 1981.

Michigan had tried twice before to bring the Red Baron home to coach, but the third time proved the charm.

Berenson thought it would be easy to resurrect the once-proud program, but he quickly discovered none of the recruits remembered when the Wolverines were great. They didn’t remember him, either.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Berenson now admits, with a chuckle.

It took Berenson four years to get a winning record, six to return to the NCAA tournament, seven to start selling out the building, and 12 to win his first NCAA title.

“Looking back, I can’t believe it took us so long just to have a winning season,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t know that when I took over.”

Berenson turned 71 on Wednesday. “I didn’t expect to be doing this so long. But I’m glad I have.”

Tomorrow, he will coach a game outdoors, on the kind of rink he grew up playing on as a kid during World War II.

But this one will be surrounded by over 100,000 fans.

And he didn’t have to give even one of those tickets away.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.