Penn State’s 4-1 win over Michigan on Thursday night in the opening round of the Big Ten hockey tournament in Detroit means the regular season champion Gophers get one more shot at the Nittany Lions – from whom they swept the season series – on Friday in the tourney semifinals.
The Lions win also means that Gophers coach Don Lucia and legendary Wolverines coach Gordon “Red” Berenson probably won’t meet on the rink again, after more than two decades of interesting head-to-head meetings.
Berenson, 77, was a standout player at Michigan and went right from the college ranks to the Montreal Canadiens in 1962. He played more than 1,000 NHL games, retiring in 1978, and coached the St. Louis Blues for parts of three seasons before returning to Ann Arbor in 1984 to take over the reins of his alma mater. Michigan had been a national powerhouse in the 1950s, but was a messy program when Berenson took the reins. In 32 season there, he returned the Wolverines to national prominence, winning a pair of NCAA titles, and leading them to 22 consecutive NCAA tournament trips.
The rivalry with Berenson started long before Lucia took over the Gophers program in 1999.
“I think we go back to about ’95 when I brought a (Colorado College) team into Michigan to play against them when they really had it rolling at that time,” Lucia recalled this week. “The next year we played in ’96 for a national title in Cincinnati.”
Lucia’s Tigers took Berenson’s Michigan team to overtime in that 1996 NCAA title game, before the Wolverines won their first title since 1964. Two years later, in 1998, the Wolverines won it again, and were a perennial contender throughout the 2000s. Their last Frozen Four trip under Berenson was in 2011, when the Wolverines upset top-ranked North Dakota in the semifinals in St. Paul before an overtime loss to Minnesota-Duluth in the title game.
The Gophers-Wolverines rivalry between Berenson and Lucia has been a good one, with the younger man prevailing in the Frozen Four opener in both 2002 and 2003, as the Gophers won the NCAA title both seasons.
“Being back at Minnesota now…it was always a highlight for me to play against Michigan,” Lucia said. “My thought when I came here in ’99 was that Michigan had just won it in ’96 and ’98 and I said ‘If we’re going to get to where we want to be, we’re going to have to beat Michigan on a regular basis.’ That was one of the benchmarks in college hockey. Michigan was one of those gold standard programs, and still is.”
Michigan ended the Gophers season a year ago, beating Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament title game, and coming within a game of a Frozen Four in what many believed would be Berenson’s final season. Instead he decided to come back for another season, which in hindsight may have been a mistake. The Wolverines had a tough year, and finish 13-19-3 after the loss to Penn State.
Berenson gave a bit of cantankerous answer on Thursday when asked if this was the end, saying that his athletics director is busy with basketball and they will meet to talk about the undecided future sometime in the coming weeks.
“It’s similar to last year, where I’m going to have a meeting with (athletic director) Ward Manuel. We talked on Tuesday, and we talked about revisiting the hockey program’s coaching situation after the Frozen Four, and we’ll decide what’s best for the program,” Berenson said. “So there’s been nothing decided. There’s been no ultimatums, nothing like that. Ward is busy now with the basketball tournament, and we were hoping to be more busy with the Big Ten hockey tournament. But that’s what it is.”
If this is the end of their rivalry, Lucia will be left with memories of great hockey.
“It was always fun to compete. I think the fans really enjoyed the games because they were up and down,” Lucia said. “They had skill players, we had skill players and I though some of the best games we played all year were against Michigan.”
In all of the 1971 NHL Draft, there were just eight Americans drafted. Of those, five were from northern Minnesota, including Dean Blais from International Falls, who would go on to a great career with the Gophers.
But Blais is best known as a coach, after winning a state high school title for Roseau, a pair of NCAA titles at North Dakota and leading Nebraska Omaha to its first Frozen Four trip two seasons ago. The Mavericks’ season ended on Sunday when they fell to Western Michigan in the NCHC playoffs. Not long later, Blais, 66, announced that he was not necessarily retiring, but was “stepping away” from the Omaha program, telling friends that his next coaching job is likely to be for his grandkids’ youth hockey teams.
His legacy can be seen in new hockey arenas in Grand Forks, Fargo and Omaha – projects which were helped along by Blais’ team success and his selling of hockey in those communities.
When Doug Woog was let go by the Gophers in 1999, Blais was just two years removed from resurrecting the North Dakota program and producing that program’s sixth NCAA title. Blais and Lucia were the two names mentioned most prominently as the next Gophers coach, with Lucia eventually getting the job. While the Gophers were mediocre in the 1999-2000 season, Blais led North Dakota to another NCAA title and nearly produced a third the next season in one of the more dramatic coaching moves in college hockey history.
Blais’ team trailed Boston College 2-0 with five minutes to play when the coach ordered goalie Karl Goehring to the bench in favor of an extra attacker. The crazy move worked, as North Dakota scored twice with their net open and sent the game to overtime. BC would prevail in the extra session, but Blais’ legend as a gutsy risk-taker was forever cemented.
Known for spending his summers fishing near his childhood home in northern Minnesota, Blais is surely looking forward to some open water, and less worrying about what happens when it turns to ice.
His is the fourth Division I hockey program currently looking for a head coach, after firings at Niagara, RPI and Northern Michigan in recent days. Along with the potential for Berenson to retire at Michigan, there’s much talk that Michigan State coach Tom Anastos could be fired after a string of sub-.500 seasons in East Lansing. Gophers assistant coach Mike Guentzel and Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings are both names that have been mentioned as possibilities to replace Blais in Omaha.