Red Berenson's Michigan Wolverines in the 'Big Chill' game outdoors against Michigan State. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
When the Michigan Wolverines take on North Dakota in the Frozen Four next week, the program will do so with the knowledge that experience will not be a weakness for the Maize and Blue. The Wolverines made the 16-team tourney for the 21st straight season, all under the watchful eye of coach Red Berenson.
Ask former Wolverines what the secret is and you’ll find the answer points right back to the legendary bench boss.
“He has a reputation of playing his freshmen in big situations in big games, in big minutes,” said Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Mike Komisarek, who played for Michigan from 2000 to 2002. “That mentality really helps you deal with pressure moments and intense times in games.”
What is perhaps most amazing about Michigan’s streak is that success comes at the price of early departures, so many of the top Wolverines leave before their four years in Ann Arbor are up. Along with Komisarek, recent examples include Andrew Cogliano, Jack Johnson and Max Pacioretty. This season, the Wolverines got an outstanding year from freshman defenseman Jon Merrill and although there was the possibility of the New Jersey Devils second-rounder leaving after one campaign, insiders report that Merrill will return, no matter the result of the Frozen Four.
“He’s one of three freshman defensemen on our team,” Berenson said. “And the way he moves the puck, he makes the right play time after time.”
Though Merrill, who like many elite Wolverines came from the U.S. national team development program, was a known quantity, the coach stressed how important hidden gems are to a college program.
“We get high-profile guys,” Berenson said, “but we also get under-the-radar players.”
Under Berenson’s watch, undrafted prospects such as Jed Ortmeyer and, most famously, John Madden flourished and went on to NHL careers.
“Johnny Madden came here as a player who could bring good offense, but terrific defense,” Berenson said.
Perhaps that’s why Michigan has been so consistently good, even recently when fellow CCHA programs Miami and Notre Dame have been strong. Skill and grit together can make for a deadly combination. For every Jeff Tambellini, there’s an Eric Nystrom; Madden brings one strength while Brendan Morrison brings another.
The Wolverines will have a tough opponent in North Dakota next week, a similarly prestigious hockey institution that boasts Hobey Baker hopeful Matt Frattin and its own stable of high NHL draft picks, including 2010 first-rounders Brock Nelson and Derek Forbort. But win or lose, the kids will have a great experience to look back upon.
“I remember my time at Michigan as some of the best times in my life,” Komisarek said. “You go out there and play hard and if you buy into what Red’s telling you, everything will take care of itself.”
In a recent interview with top-rated 2011 draft prospect Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, I asked the sublime center the question that had intrigued many in the offices of The Hockey News: What name is he going to put on the back of his jersey when he hits the pros? Most players with hyphenated last names have dropped their monikers down to one. For example, Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, who now goes by just the “Paajarvi,” joked that his lettering would have to go in a big circle on his back otherwise.
As for Nugent-Hopkins?
“I’m planning on keeping ‘Nugent-Hopkins,’ ” he said. “I never wanted to change it.”
It’s not without precedent - Phoenix defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson crammed all 13 characters on the back of his sweater. According to the NHL, there is no limit on the number of letters on a player’s jersey. Nugent-Hopkins will need broad shoulders to help take the burden of being a highly rated phenom, but at least he’ll be happy with the letters written across them.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays, The Hot List appears Tuesdays and his Rookie Report appears every other Wednesday. Follow him on Twitter on twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.