DETROIT- Unspoken throughout Thursday’s sixty minutes, the chants started up moments after the final buzzer sounded between Michigan and Penn State.
“Thank you Red! Thank you Red!”
At that point the game had ended. Speculation begun. The Michigan faithful who showed up for the Big Ten quarterfinal let Red Berenson, their longtime head coach, know how much he meant at the end of his 33rd season with the Wolverines and one he didn’t expect to be coaching.
There was plenty of time to decide on what to do Thursday once they stopped giving players on the ice their full attention. With Michigan giving up three goals in the first period to the Nittany Lions, the Wolverines ended the first intermission in a 3-0 hole. Penn State added a fourth less than two minutes later and ended Michigan’s year with a 4-1 win. Still, the cheers were the loudest the small crowd got. They finally had something to cheer.
In the scheme of things, Thursday’s game was less of a season end for Michigan and more potentially an era. Once Berenson became the final Wolverine to leave the Joe Louis Arena ice the questions about his future started in earnest. The first three directed to him at Thursday’s postgame press conference had nothing to do about Michigan’s loss.
They were all about Red, the past and his future.
Saying that he was disappointed it became an issue Berenson answered that he will decide his status in a couple weeks following the Frozen Four.
“It's similar to last year, where I'm going to have a meeting with (Michigan AD) Warde Manuel. We talked on Tuesday, and we talked about revisiting the hockey program's coaching situation after the Frozen Four,” he said. “We’ll decide what’s best for the program.”
If this does end up being his final game it would be a fitting bookend for the coach, who has won 848 career games, made 23 NCAA appearances, and won 2 national championships. (Only eight teams have more total NCAA Tournament appearances.) Prior to being a college coach he was a Wolverines captain, a Stanley Cup winner in the Original Six era and a NHL head coach with the St. Louis Blues.
It’s a far cry from his opponent Thursday, a program in its fifth year and one whose new building stands in perfect contrast to the charm and history of Yost.
“He's a legend in hockey. He's a legend in college hockey. He's a legend in NHL. He's such a fine man, and he's so gracious off the ice, but I'll tell you what, on the ice, he's an incredible competitor,” Penn State head coach Guy Gadowsky said about Berenson. “To be able to compete against him any time, it's an honor, it's a privilege. It always means a lot to me.”
A year ago Berenson chose to return in part because Manuel was new and transitioning into his job. He could have gone out on a high of returning Michigan to the NCAA Tournament after three seasons of coming short by one result, the toughest stretch the Wolverines have faced since the 1990s. To him, 2015-16 featured an enjoyable team that was “night and day” compared to the one he coached to just 13 wins.
“You know, I told most of my friends that last year would probably be my last year,” he said. “By the end of the year we were all having fun, the players, the coaches, the fans. The offense was a big part of it. There's no question there's nothing like winning and there's nothing like losing.
“So last year was last year, but that was more of a Michigan team that could score and we had trouble this year.”
Whenever Berenson decides - whether it's to retire or continue on a year-to-year contract - he will have fittingly opened and closed Joe Louis Arena. Thursday’s game was the final time Michigan plays at the Detroit building before the Red Wings move from the river to across downtown in brand new Little Caesars Arena. As St. Louis head coach he was there for the first NHL game in December 1979. He was there at the Olympia back in the day too, seemingly a fixture of hockey in Michigan.
If he’s there when Michigan plays its first game in the new building next season so will the cheers thanking Red Berenson for the job he’s done throughout 34 years with the Wolverines.