Forty miles apart, Mike Babcock and Red Berenson share joys, challenges of leading premier hockey teams
Following the lockout that erased the 2004-05 NHL season, the league implemented several rules changes intended to add entertainment value. League owners, officials and players hoped the “new NHL,” as it came to be known, would attract new fans, as well as those who lost interest in hockey during the prolonged work stoppage.Babcock, who led the Anaheim Ducks to the Stanley Cup finals, was expected to navigate a veteran Red Wings team through a new-look game - and get them back to the finals.
One change that proved particularly worrisome to Babcock - and many other coaches - was the elimination of the center red line. The NHL removed the red line to allow longer passes and create more scoring chances.
As Babcock adapted to the NHL’s more open offensive game, he sought help 40 miles west of Joe Louis Arena from University of Michigan coach Red Berenson, who, as a college coach, was used to working without a red line. The discussions helped Babcock adjust, he said, and sparked a relationship that remains strong four years later.
“When I talk to Red, things just make sense to me,” Babcock said after a recent Red Wings practice.
Berenson, though, said he’s the one who has benefitted the most from his relationship with Babcock.
“It’s more one-sided,” Berenson said. “I’m on the listening side more often than not. He’s been a good resource for me, and hopefully I’ve been a good resource for him.”
Babcock, 46, is similarly deferential toward Berenson, 69, a former NHL player and coach who’s in his 26th season at Michigan.
“I don’t know what I offer him, if anything,” Babcock said. “The first thing is, we have a friendship. We’re two guys who love the outdoors and love hockey. He’s a man I have a ton of respect for, and love being around.”
So much so that Babcock earlier this month invited Berenson to help at Red Wings training camp in Traverse City. It was the third straight year Babcock has invited Berenson to camp - an invitation the Michigan coach has been glad to accept.
“I don’t think they really need us - we need them more,” Berenson said. “The Detroit Red Wings are a team we try to emulate. We’re not the Detroit Red Wings, but hopefully we can learn from the things they do.”
The Red Wings and Wolverines have nearly identical historic success. Michigan has compiled a .628 all-time win percentage, with 10 conference championships and nine national championships - the most in college hockey. The Wolverines have appeared in 19 straight NCAA tournaments and 23 Frozen Fours, also NCAA records.
The Red Wings have made the playoffs 18 years in a row, the longest current streak in professional sports, and won 11 Stanley Cups, the third most in the NHL.
“We’re trying to do the same thing as Michigan, and Michigan is trying to do the same thing as us,” Babcock said.
The two coaches keep track of each other’s teams during the season and offer advice along the way.
“I think he likes to bounce things off people outside the organization,” Berenson said. “They went on a tough stretch last season with a high goals-against and bad penalty killing. We go through some of those same things, so, in some cases, it’s just coaches letting off steam.”
Even if they’re not talking X’s and O’s, both Babcock and Berenson said they offer each other fresh perspectives.
“It’s definitely good for me as a hockey coach,” Berenson said. “Even if we have a successful program, I can get into a cave mentality and not realize how the game is evolving, or how coaching is changing. It’s been really good for me to stay in touch with a top program like Detroit.”
The NHL link also gives Michigan an edge in recruiting and coaching players who aspire to play professionally. More current NHL players went to Michigan than any other school, and the Michigan coaching staff can give first-hand advice to players on what it takes to be successful at that level.
Michigan associate head coach Mel Pearson earlier this month accepted an invitation to training camp with the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Pearson returned with ideas for new drills, as well as respect for what NHL players go through to stay on top.
“It’s definitely a plus,” Pearson said. “A lot of our recruits and players hope to have a chance to get to that level. I hope I can help them get there down the line.”
“(NHL training camp is) a good hockey tune-up,” Berenson said, “so we get a feel for the NHL speed and skill level. When I talk to players about the NHL, I’m not just talking about something I’ve seen on TV.”
In turn, Babcock, who attends an occasional Michigan practice, said he’s benefitted from tapping Berenson’s experience and success - particularly his ability to relate to players.
“He can be a voice of reason during the season,” Babcock said. “You know, sometimes you can’t see the forest through the trees. As a former player and a really good player, he’s great for helping me deal with players, and sometimes saying, ‘You might want to try dealing with this guy a little differently.’”
But the best conversations, both coaches said, often have more to do with the woods than the ice.
“Some things are not about hockey,” Berenson said. “Mike Babcock is a hunter, and he likes to talk about that. Sometimes it’s good to get away from hockey.”
James Briggs covers sports for AnnArbor.com. Contact him at 734.623.2557 or firstname.lastname@example.org.