Published March 17, 2017
In case you were wondering, Gordon Berenson didn’t get the nickname “Red” because of his goal scoring exploits in the NHL, but on November 7, 1968, he did light that crimson lamp six times.
They were already calling Berenson “Red” back then (because of his hair), when while playing for the St. Louis Blues, the center pumped six pucks into the net in Philadelphia in an 8-0 demolition of the Flyers.
To this day, almost 50 years later, Berenson remains the only visiting player in NHL history to score six goals in a single game.
It was 46 years ago and some change when the color red was further intertwined with Berenson.
In February of 1971, the Red Wings, in the midst of one of the most tumultuous seasons in franchise history, traded “mod” center Garry Unger and winger Wayne Connelly to the Blues for winger Tim Ecclestone and center Berenson.
Unger was still a young, promising player in those days but he lost favor with coach-turned-GM Ned Harkness, so Ned traded him. The Red Wings got rooked in the deal, but that’s not Berenson’s fault.
Red was eight years older than Unger, for one. The Blues were automatically going to come out ahead based on the calendar alone.
Berenson played college hockey at Michigan, and led the Wolverines to the 1961 RPI Invitational Tournament championship. The trade to the Red Wings was a sort of homecoming.
Nobody called Berenson “Gordon” in his NHL days, and they certainly don’t call him that now, as he just wrapped up his 33rd season as coach of the Michigan hockey program.
It might be his last in Ann Arbor.
“I can tell you what it is,” Berenson told the Free Press. “It’s similar to last year, where I’m going to have a meeting with (U-M athletic director) Warde Manuel. We talked Tuesday and we talked about revisiting the hockey team’s coaching situation after the Frozen Four and we’ll decide what’s best for the program.”
Red almost retired last year, but he decided to stay on as Manuel was beginning his first full year as Michigan’s AD.
Berenson is 77 now. He’s won over 800 hockey games behind the bench at Michigan, about twice as many as he’s lost. Few folks will be sadder to see Joe Louis Arena close than Berenson, whose teams were 109-48-5 in the barn that is shuttering its doors after this hockey season.
In 1971, when he reported to the Red Wings, Berenson’s Michigan ties were overshadowed by his being the guy the Red Wings got for Unger, who was a fan favorite (especially with the female fans). It wasn’t Red’s fault, of course, that he wasn’t Unger, and he was as sad to leave St. Louis as Unger was to depart Detroit.
The Red Wings were lousy and that didn’t help matters for Berenson, who was a grizzled veteran and a slick passer but he wasn’t nearly the dynamic goal scorer that Unger was and would continue to be for the Blues for many years to come.
But Berenson was a good Red Wing, and was eventually elevated to team captain. However, his years in Detroit were mostly remembered for being associated with mediocre hockey. “Darkness with Harkness,” they called it.
There was more irony to come involving Red Berenson and Garry Unger.
In December 1974, Berenson and Unger became teammates when the Red Wings traded Red to St. Louis for rugged forward Phil Roberto.
Berenson wore the Winged Wheel with grace and class, but he was always seen as the Red Wings’ loot in the Unger trade, and the fans often couldn’t see past all the goals that Unger was scoring for the Blues and therefore drew unfavorable comparisons.
Again, not Red’s fault.
The only thing red about Berenson, anymore, is his nickname. Maize and blue coarse through his veins.
Perhaps it’s fitting that if Berenson retires, it will coincide with the closing of JLA, where he coached for the Blues and for U-M since the building opened for hockey in 1979, literally. Berenson was the opposing coach when the Red Wings and Blues inaugurated the Joe on 12/27/79. Red was just two weeks into his NHL coaching career, having taken over for the resigned Barclay Plager.
Berenson coached the Blues thru the 1981-82 season (Coach of the Year in 1980-81). Then it was on to Michigan, who hired him in 1984.
He hasn’t left Ann Arbor since.
In 2015, Berenson became only the fourth coach in NCAA Division I hockey history to record 800 wins. Along the way, there’ve been 11 Frozen Four appearances and two NCAA Championships (1996 and 1998). The Wolverines qualified for the NCAA tournament for 22 straight seasons between 1991-2012, an all-time record. Michigan also won 13 Great Lakes Invitational tournaments under Berenson.
With Berenson behind the bench, U-M hockey has been the best thing on ice in Ann Arbor since Scotch and water.
But his time at Michigan is clearly winding down. At 77, retirement seems to beckon, but you never know.
“There’s been nothing decided,” Berenson insists.
Oh, and what of that glorious night in November 1968, when Berenson made the Flyers see red six times?
“I hit a crossbar on another one — I had 10 shots on net and then I hit a crossbar,” he said.
“Glenn Hall was (our) backup goalie, and at the end of the game, when I came off, he said ‘Good game. At least you were plus tonight.’ They didn’t give you a lot of credit,” Berenson said.
After 33 years at Michigan and over 800 wins, let credit not be overdue now.