Michigan Wolverines Men's Ice Hockey - Team History - Al Renfrew Era

Al Renfrew Era

Through Heyliger's tenure athletic director Fritz Crisler had seen the virtue of having a Michigan man head the hockey program. When it came time for Crisler to conduct his second search for a hockey coach, therefore, he sought out Al Renfrew, an affable man who had captained the 1948-49 Wolverine squad and had already been coaching college hockey for six years.

At the end of Renfrew's first season in Grand Forks, Heyliger stepped down from the Michigan job and told Renfrew to put his name in for it. Renfrew wrote Fritz Crisler a letter in March indicating his interest, but Crisler didn't respond for over a month. Renfrew had already concluded he was out of the running when Crisler called to offer him the job. His decision should have been harder than it was. He had built a great team at North Dakota, and the players he recruited won the national title two years after he left, but he was too excited to be back in Ann Arbor.

Renfrew inherited a team that had gone 18-5-2 and finished one victory short of its third consecutive NCAA title in 1956-57-and then Renfrew promptly suffered Michigan's first losing season since World War II. His skaters finished 8-13 in 1957-58, his first year, and 8-13-1 his second. But Renfrew wasn't worried-he knew he had a secret weapon coming in.

From 1958 to 1964, some 14 players made the trek from Regina, Saskatchewan to Ann Arbor including one Red Berenson. While still in high school Berenson had already become highly touted major junior player, one good enough to join the Montreal Canadiens system straight out of high school, but he had other ideas. A serious student, Berenson became aware of the world of American college hockey when Regina Pats high profile coach Murray Armstrong, migrated south of the border in 1956 to accept the head coaching job at University of Denver. Berenson visited North Dakota in 1958 and was favorably impressed at the caliber of players the former coach, a man named Al Renfrew, had lured to Grand Forks before Ranfrew returned to Michigan the year before. But soon after Berenson's visit to North Dakota, Dale MacDonald, a Saskatchewan native playing for Renfrew at Michigan, told his coach that Berenson was the rare player worth going out of his way to get. Renfrew scraped together enough money to fly the young phenom to Michigan, thereby making him the first hockey player ever to receive a free recruiting trip to Ann Arbor. The extra effort was worth it, for both parties. Once he was on campus they didn't have to sell him on it. "After I came down on a visit," Berenson confirms, "I came back and told the other guys. "This is where we're going." And just like that, a pipeline of hockey talent was created between Regina and Ann Arbor.

Berenson's decision, at least, came with a price. Frank Selke, the Montreal GM who had drafted Berenson, warned him that if he went to an America college he would never become a pro. Fully aware he might be sacrificing the dream of every Canadian boy to play in the NHL-and for the Montreal Canadiens, no less-Berenson didn't flinch. After sitting out his freshman year, which the NCAA required of all freshman at that time. Berenson suited up for his first game on February 5, 1960 against Minnesota. He scored 90 seconds into his first game, assisted on another goal five minutes later and scored a third later in the game. Everyone in the building that night had just seen the future of Michigan hockey, and it looked bright.

Renfrew notched his first winning season and his first league playoff birth in the 1960-61 season. The following season, the Berenson-captained squad didn't lose a game through New Year's, and finished the regular season with a 20-3 mark. As expected, the Wolverines received their first NCAA bid under Renfrew that spring. Michigan was slight favorite entering the 1962 NCAA Tournament in Utica, New York, but were upset by Clarkson 5-4 in the semifinal. In a life with few regrets, the game against Clarkson ranks near the top for Berenson. "We should've won it," he said "We were destined to meet Michigan Tech in the finals, but got knocked off by and underdog-Clarkson-back when eastern teams weren't that good. You don't get too many chances to win it all as a player. At the time it doesn't seem so important, but 10 years, 20 years later, you ask yourself: "Why the hell didn't we do that?" After scoring his school record-tying 43rd goal against St. Lawrence in the consolation game, Berenson caught a ride to Boston, where he played for the Canadiens the next night, making him the first player to jump directly from college to the NHL.

The 1964 squad returned its two leading scorers from the previous season, Gary Butler and Gordon Wilkie, both ex-Pats, who had combined for 79 points in just 24 games the previous season. They played better than expected, combining for a remarkable 135 points in just 29 games-both players finished just shy of Berenson's single-season record of 70 points. Rookie Wilf Martin added an unexpected 58 points. Mel Wakabayashi, all 5'5" of him, join the team in January 1964, centering Rob Coristine and Bob Ferguson on the third line. The trio added 107 points, which would have made them the top-scoring line the previous season. Added it all up and you had the first Michigan team to score more than 200 goals in a season, averaging a prolific 7.5 goals per game. Thanks largely to the unprecedented scoring streak, this unheralded but determined bunch beat every opponent at least once en route to a 24-2-1 record, winning more games than any team in Michigan history. At the 1964 Frozen Four, Denver took care of Rensselaer, 4-1, while Michigan survived a close game with Providence, 3-2. For the final game 7,000 Pioneer fans packed the Denver Arena to watch their team battle for its fourth NCAA title in seven years. The underdog Wolverines beat Denver, 6-3 in the Bulldogs' backyard, winning their seventh national championship. It was the last hurrah for the Regina regiment, a group of some 14 players who came to Ann Arbor between 1958 and 1964. "This is the place," Berenson told them, and they followed.

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