NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When Gordon “Red” Berenson made “the best decision of his life” and graduated from the University of Michigan in 1962, the only American playing in the NHL was Olympian Tommy Williams, and the only collegiately-produced player was Bill “Red” Hay, an early star at Colorado College.
How times have changed as today one third of all NHL players are products of the college system and roughly 25 percent of those occupying roster spots are Americans. As he prepared to join the Class of 2018 entering the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Berenson, in his own humble, soft spoken way, talked about the role he had in making that happen.
After a successful NHL career as a player and coach, Berenson returned to his alma mater in 1984 where he would spend the next 33 years serving as the head coach of the Wolverines, helping players receive the same opportunities to enjoy the college experience that were given to him years ago.
“It’s amazing how many people touch you along the way and it’s amazing how many people you end up touching,” Berenson said prior to Wednesday’s induction ceremony.
“You don’t notice it at the time but when it’s all over and the smoke clears you start hearing from players who come out of the woodwork to tell you how much they appreciated their time at Michigan and how much it’s benefited them. It was really the feedback I was hoping for because that’s the feedback I gave my coach at Michigan, Al Renfrew. He changed my life and I hope I was able to impact other lives.”
Throughout his time at Ann Arbor, the Saskatchewan-born Berenson became a staunch supporter of the American player and the college system.
Even prior to that, as a coach with the St. Louis Blues, Berenson recalled sitting in meetings with team scouts and player personnel people debating the pros and cons of selecting a relatively unknown college player from New York City. Only Art Berglund, who would go on to a long and distinguished career with USA Hockey, pleaded with the Blues brass to take a chance on Joe Mullen. And the rest, as they say, is hockey history.
“The image of the American player by the NHL standard has gone right through the roof and it keeps going,” Berenson said. “I attribute part of that to organizations like USA Hockey and the college system and even the NHL where it’s expanded all over the country. Guess where hockey has started to grow — in all these spots.”
Berenson saw the fruits of that labor first hand Tuesday night when he and the other members of the Class of 2018, including three-time Olympian Natalie Darwitz, longtime NHL referee Paul Stewart, hockey pioneer Leland “Hago” Harrington and David Poile, the most successful general manager in NHL history, were honored at a Nashville Predators game.
The results of Poile’s vision of creating a hockey haven in the middle of Music Row were on full display on this night.
“You could just feel the passions and the energy in the stands for their team,” said Berenson, who remains connected with the Michigan program in a fund-raising capacity. “The growth of hockey in the United States, not just in the NHL but also college hockey, women’s hockey and youth hockey, is really amazing. That’s what we’re seeing and it’s great. All these young players will be benefactors and we’ve all helped pave the way for the U.S. player and the U.S. college player.”
Growing the game from scratch runs in Poile’s blood. His father, Bud, built expansion franchises in Philadelphia and Vancouver. His son followed in those pioneering footsteps after graduating from Northeastern University when he took a front office job with the expansion Atlanta Flames in 1972. Twelve years later he became the general manager of the Washington Capitals, building the foundation for what has become a model NHL franchise. He did so by making shrewd trades that weren’t always embraced by those in the organization.
“I was only on the job for 10 days when I traded for [future Hall of Famer] Rod Langway,” Poile recalled. “I called the Caps owner Abe Pollin to tell him I made the trade of Rod Langway for Ryan Walter, who happened to be his favorite player. He said ‘I hope you know what you’re doing’ and slammed down the phone. I’ve asked myself that question every time I’ve made a trade.”
More often than not Poile has proven that he knows exactly what he’s doing. After winning more than 500 games with the Capitals, Poile was searching for a new challenge when the expansion Predators came calling in 1997. Through several lean years Poile stayed true to his vision to not only build a Stanley Cup contender but to turn Nashville into a vibrant hockey town.
Along the way he continued his trading ways, swapping popular team captain Shea Webber for the flamboyant P.K. Subban. Once again Poile proved that he knew what he was doing as the Predators made it to the Cup finals before losing in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Despite falling short of their goal, the rest of the hockey world was able to witness what Poile had envisioned so long ago. Hockey and honky tonks could thrive together in Music City, USA.
“I had a vision to turn this into a hockey market with sellout crowds and people wearing Predators gear and having the Predators being a big part of the community,” said Poile, who was honored last season as the winningest general manager in NHL history.
“It’s like building my favorite dessert. You put a couple of scoops of ice cream in there, then you put the right sauce on there and then some whipped cream. And the cherry on the top is the Stanley Cup.
“Right now my sundae is built, we only have one more thing to do.”