By Nick Barnowski -
After missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in 22 years, University of Michigan head coach Red Berenson is looking to rebound.
The Wolverines finished seventh in the CCHA last season but came on strong at the end, making it all the way to the CCHA championship game before losing to Notre Dame. A win would have qualified them for the national tournament, but now, Berenson and the Wolverines are looking to impress in the Big Ten hockey conference’s inaugural season.
“At Michigan, we’re excited about the new conference,” said Berenson, who is entering his 30th season as Michigan coach, at today’s Big Ten hockey media day in Minnesota. “I mean, we’re a Big Ten school, all our sports are in Big Ten competition except hockey. I know our fans will really welcome this.
“I think we’re really going in the right direction.”
While Berenson said that regarding the future of the Big Ten hockey conference, it also can mean the direction of his program.
Michigan (10-15-3-3 conference, 18-19-3 overall) is turning to depth at the forward position and incoming defensemen to improve this year’s team, which the Big Ten coaches predicted to finish third in the conference this season.
“I think we’ll be deep, and we’ll be good in forward,” Berenson said. “I think we’ll have some good, young players.”
Returning is Alex Guptill, who was named one of the Big Ten players to watch. The junior had 36 points last season to lead the Wolverines and will be an integral part of a Michigan offense that will try to replicate last year’s that produced 3.23 goals per game (tops in the CCHA). Freshman forward JT Compher has attracted national attention and is one of 10 freshmen looking to make an impact.
In goal, sophomore Steve Racine will start. He had a .899 save percentage and a 2.65 GAA last season as a freshman, playing 55.4% of the minutes.
“There was a question of goalkeeping last year and I hope we’ve answered that,” Berenson said.
Defensively, the Wolverines will have to find a way to replace Jon Merrill and Jacob Trouba, both of whom left school early to turn pro. Seniors Mac Bennett and Kevin Clare will be counted on by Berenson to fill the void.
“We’ve got four incoming freshmen defensemen that will have to eat up a lot of ice time and hopefully grow fast into the season, which promises to be one of the tougher schedules that we’ve had at Michigan for some time,” Berenson said.
On that schedule this year is Minnesota and Wisconsin, two teams Berenson is excited about reconnecting with.
“Our fans don’t see Minnesota or Wisconsin in our building very often,” he said. “I know I’m looking forward to it and our fans are looking forward to it as well.”
Berenson, a Wolverines alum himself, reflected on his own playing days when discussing the new conference.
“I remember playing at Michigan in the late’50s, and I thought what is the big deal with the Big Ten schools?” Berenson said. “We’ve played in the WCHA and Minnesota had a strong program then, but Wisconsin never had a program at that point, Ohio State never had a program, and obviously Penn State didn’t. But whenever we played Minnesota you could tell just from the fans it was like a Stanley Cup game, and I’m hoping that’s what we get back into this conference. I think we will. Our students expect it, our fans expect it, and our players will learn to expect it.”
Berenson, players, and fans are all circling this year’s GLI on their schedules, as it is taking place at Comerica Park in Detroit this December. The Michigan coach, who grew up playing hockey outdoors, said he’s a “big proponent” of the games outside. Michigan participated in the “Cold War” in 2001 at Spartan Stadium, the “Big Chill at the Big House” in 2010, and playing Ohio State in Cleveland in 2012.
“Playing in Comerica Park will be a different twist because you’ve got the upcoming Winter Class a few days later in Ann Arbor,” Berenson said. “Nevertheless, we’ll put on a good show in Detroit. Our players will look forward to it, and we’ll embrace it.”
Whether the location is Comerica Park or Yost Ice Arena, Michigan will be looking to put on a good show on the ice and avenge last year’s disappointing season.